The future of Psychedelics

Jul 19

Will the Department of Defense lead the way in researching MDMA? Will cancer patients drop prescription LSD to face their fear of dying? Can a tiny mushroom make you a true believer? And what are the chances that an entirely new drug will emerge from the jungle or the lab just in time to save us from ourselves?

All fascinating and timely questions, but predicting the future of psychedelics requires an elusive kind of crystal ball—which means even longtime trailblazers still have no idea where the path leads. Then again, whoever said that getting there is half the fun only had it half right ....

So it turns out that the nerve center of a rising psychedelic renaissance around the world is ac­tually a wholly unassuming split-level house lo­cated on a busy street in a small California town—right next-door to a large taqueria that's open till midnight seven days a week.

The future of Psychedelics 00At 9 p.m. West Coast time, a steady rain falls on the roof of the house, steadily watering the two wild fennel plants growing in the backyard, while inside. Rick Doblin. Ph.D., head of the Mul­tidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Stud­ies (MAPS), huddles before his laptop screen as if for warmth. Goblin speaks directly into the com­puter, talking about a subject he'll happily dis­cuss at great length with literally anyone, from the FDA, DEA, NIDA, Obama or your mama, to professors, students, doctors, scientists, chemists. anarchists, psychonauts. space cadets, even some guy in a dust-covered giraffe costume at Burning Man.

This time around, the head of MAPS finds himself fielding questions on psychedelics sub­mitted by the online community Reddit. Via the laptop's built-in video camera, his words and smiling face beam out directly from the 25-year-old organization's modest meeting room on the ground floor of this little house in Santa Cruz, CA, to the entire wired universe—starting with a classic good news/bad news breakdown of the current reality.

"Right now, in 2011, there's more research into psychedelics going on than in the last 40 years," Doblin says, forever maintaining a cos­mic deadpan even when discussing his most far-out ideas. "But then again, that's only about 10 studies."

Still, up from zero, it's a major improvement.

Last summer, in part to celebrate that long-overdue shift in momentum, MAPS organized "Psychedelic Science in the 21st Century," a major four-day conference in nearby San Jose that brought together hundreds of experts, both accredited and informal, for panel discussions and late-night dissertations on the latest re­search into mind-bending substances, includ­ing how best to move forward. The gathering proved a coming-of-age moment for the re­emerging field, which had only begun to explore the tremendous medical and therapeutic poten­tial of psilocybin, LSD and similar drugs when the United Nations, in the early 1970s, acting under pressure from the US Drug Enforcement Administration, passed a series of international treaties that effectively slammed the lid on this promising research into the use of psychedelics for personal growth and healing.

Nearly 40 years later, with keynote speakers including pioneering psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, best-selling author Andrew Weil, and vi­sionary artists Alex and Allyson Grey, the MAPS conference made headlines worldwide, eliciting almost universally positive coverage while re­assuring those in attendance that they're in­deed part of a thriving worldwide movement. Soon, stories began appearing in magazines like Oprab and Elle examining the once-taboo issue of beneficial psychedelic experiences in reasoned, even positive terms—proving that the growing interest in these drugs goes far beyond the research laboratory, the halls of academia and the dance floor.

So what will we discover once we learn to stop worrying and love psychedelics? And where will that knowledge lead us as a society?

Pressed a few times to speculate, Doblin at first seems too focused on hacking through the vines that block his way to lift his head up and won­der where the path leads.

Lately, MAPS has been intimately involved in conducting or helping to fund and promote a variety of projects looking at the potential med­ical benefits of psychedelics and marijuana, in­cluding FDA-approved Phase II studies of MDMA (aka. Ecstasy) in the United States and Switzer­land that saw researchers administering the drug as part of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy sessions for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Additional studies of this approach will soon begin in Israel. Jordan and Canada—all part of building up momentum for the large-scale Phase III clinical trials that will be required in order to make MDMA available as a prescription medicine. Eventually. Goblin can envision a future where fully licensed psyche­delic centers across the country cater to those seeking the physical. mental or spiritual effects of these powerful substances in a controlled but exploratory setting. though he's careful not to get ahead of himself. Better to just buckle down and focus on finding out if MDMA-assisted ther­apy can effectively treat PTSD first.

Proving such a thing to the FDA's satisfaction will end up costing $10 million or more, a stag­gering sum that MAPS is ready to raise if they can and must, though the organization's founder would much rather see the US Department of Veterans Affairs pony up the dough, seeing as it's the part of the government directly respon­sible for dealing with the tragic (and costly) epi­demic of PTSD among US combat troops. But fat chance of that ever happening, right?

Not so fast, Doblin says, before telling Reddit nation about his recent positive experiences with the Department of Defense and VA—including the top psychiatrist at the Depart­ment of Defense, who con­tacted him to learn more about MDMA therapy for PTSD, and a group of VA re- searchers who recently asserted that while MDMA research remains too po­litically charged for the VA to conduct in-house, it's nonetheless worthwhile and should be pursued.

'That's the first time in 15 years we've ever gotten 'It's good you're doing this' instead of 'We want no part of it,"' Doblin says. "And that's a big shift. But the real shift will be when they realize that they're the ones with billions of dollars of PTSD disability payments every year, they're the ones who went to war and now have this problem, and so they should start studying MDMA themselves," In the meantime, what's stopping the global pharma­ceutical industry from getting involved in psy­chedelics? Primarily. those guys are sticking to the sidelines because the best-known and best-understood drugs in this particular category—including LSD, MDMA, psilocybin, mescaline and DMT are off-patent and would only be adminis­tered a few times (rather than administered daily), which takes the profit motive out of de­veloping them into prescription drugs. Not to mention the social stigma attached, and all of the additional regulatory hurdles involved in studying a Schedule I controlled substance. So, at the end of the day, for-profit players like Pfizer and Bayer have no incentive to research whether or not "magic mushrooms" can help people produce peak spiritual experiences that lead to lasting benefits in their lives.

The future of Psychedelics 01That important question was left to Dr. Roland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins University, who, with taxpayer money supplied by the National Insti­tute on Drug Abuse, administered psilocybin-the active ingredient in "magic mushrooms"—to 36 men and women during a series of eight-hour sessions that ended in ZOOS. Lo and behold, it turns out that two-thirds of them reported hav­ing one of the most—if not the most—spiritually rewarding experiences of their lives. Then, 14 months later, a follow-up study found that a ma­jority of the test subjects continued to draw di­rect benefits from the experience.

Talk about a jumping-off point! So where do we go from here? Could there be such a thing as a science of spirituality, if not pleasure? Should grandma drop acid? Or do we need a new drug?

'There's no great need for new psychedelics: we just need permission to use what we have to its fullest," Doblin says, though he immediately hedges the bet: "Of course, I felt the same way before I ever tried MONA, so maybe there is some new, undiscovered psychedelic that offers a certain kind of super-clarity or something, and it's different from LSD, different from MDMA .... Anyway, The Shulgin Index will certainly en­sure that there are fruitful areas to explore for the next 100 years."

"The Index," as it's sure to be known to the next few generations of psychedelic enthusi­asts, represents the compiled life's work of Sasha Shulgin, the brilliant, pioneering psyche­delic chemist who brought the world STP, 2CB, DOI and countless other so-called designer drugs. Also, though MDMA was first synthesized in 1912 by Merck Pharmaceuticals, the magic formula remained buried deep within piles of otherwise unremarkable research until 1965, when Shulgin and a former student rediscov­ered the chemical compound.

In a way, it's hard to relate what a towering and irreplaceable figure he is in the small world of microgram-sized consciousness-changing compounds. Doblin remembers a 1992 meeting with the DEA and NIDA, when government scien­tists had gathered experts together to discuss a possible renewal of research into psychedelics with human subjects. Asked to argue in favor of the compounds he had known, loved, synthe­sized and in some cases even discovered, Shulgin—who has always kept one foot in the underground and the other in academia—chose to take the fork in the road and basically came out to the Feds as an enthusiastic end user of his own lab experiments.

In other words, with no "legitimate" data to present on the effect of psychedelics on human beings, he presented himself—and won them over in the process.

"Sasha's strength has always been that he's open and honest," Doblin says. "He gave the other scientists in the room the courage of his con­victions."

He has also now given us The Shulgin Index, chock-full of all those fruitful areas still left to explore.

"And those trails are being taken up, let me tell you," Shulgin says, smil­ing, though he declines to say which rabbit holes he considers most promis­ing. "I'm just glad to see all of the information available and being avidly researched."

Having suffered a stroke earlier this year, that's the first thing he's said in almost an hour, though he's clearly been closely following a conversation about the fu­ture of psychedelics taking place around the kitchen table in his longtime home among the oaks and pines of Northern California. Out back, Shulgin 's legendary ramshackle laboratory now sits idle, but it still looks like the hideaway of a rustic mad scientist, including copious cobwebs, a lifetime of neatly scribbled lab notes, and hand-blown glass beakers. If you're into psyche­delics, it's like standing in Michelangelo's studio.

"I have been collecting materials from a uni­versity here and a company there—anywhere they're told by the environmental people, Get rid of these things. They're carcinogenic, they're explosive, they're all kinds of negative things, and since you have people employed here, you can't keep this in stock,"' Shulgin explained in a 2005 interview with HIGH TIMES. "So I get a phone call saying. We're coming in with a bunch of boxes.' And it's beautiful. It's sort of an idea source. I browse amongst the latest and see what I can do with them."

In total, he's created more than 200 new psy­chedelic drugs from these chemical odds and ends, using basic equipment found in any labo­ratory and his own insatiable imagination. Just as importantly, he's led an often lonely. some­times dangerous campaign to make sure all that's known to humankind about these and thousands of other psychotropic substances re­mains available to researchers, medical profes­sionals and the general public—including by documenting his own and his wife's direct expe­riences in books like PiHKAL A Chemical Love Story (the acronym stands for "Phenethy­lamines I Have Known and Loved"), and TiHKAL: The Continuation (Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved").

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