Written by: Bernadette Angeles
There’s a preconceived notion when it comes to psychedelics. A diluted perception to which some believe psychedelics are a big no-no.
Psychedelics are defined in dictionary terms by what is acceptable to know; most describing psychedelics as a drug that causes hallucinations, distorted images or “psychedelic experiences.” But what are psychedelic experiences? Are they beneficial or useless? What kind of drugs are psychedelics? Recreational, medicinal or both?
MAPS has paved the way bringing evolution to alternative medicine and healing proving that psychedelics are more than just a “trip.” Founded in 1986 by Rick Doblin, Ph.D., Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) was created as a 501(c)(3) non-profit research and educational organization developing medical, legal and cultural contexts for people to benefit from through the careful uses of psychedelics and marijuana.
MAPS’ mission continues to expand. Its primary goals are to support scientific research into spirituality, creativity and neuroscience. By educating the public honestly about the risks and benefits of psychedelics and marijuana, we can find a holistic approach to self-recovery.
I spoke with MAPS’ Director, Brad Burge who began his work with MAPS in 2009.
FRANK151: Thanks so much for your time. As a fan and follower of MAPS for over a decade, I want to learn more about MAPS. Also spread awareness on natural remedies and health benefits outside of the standard pharmaceutical structures of medicine.
BRAD: Thank you, we appreciate it. We’re happy to hear that.
FRANK151: I assume it’s difficult to start a foundation based on psychedelics considering the U.S. government in the 60’s heightened its war on drugs and in 1970 President Nixon introduced the Controlled Substances Act… MAPS has been around for 33 years. How did Rick Doblin create MAPS?
BRAD: The founding of MAPS was a direct response to the criminalization of MDMA. As you mentioned, other psychedelics have been criminalized before then, but MDMA didn’t really come to the attention of the general public until the early 1980’s. MDMA was used in psychotherapy, starting in the mid-1970’s then it wasn’t until the 1980’s as they say, “it escaped” the therapy room and became known as ecstacy– became used in recreational context. And at that point MDMA was added to the Controlled Substances Act. Not because of any research that had taken place, but really quite the opposite. Because of this politically motivated fear that MDMA could only be used in harmful ways– didn’t have any passing. So at that time, the scientific testimony and therapeutic testimony that was provided to the DEA was ignored by the administrator and despite all that, MDMA was still added to the Controlled Substances Act saying that it had no medical use despite evidence to the contrary. So MAPS’ goal, the goal for Rick Doblin at the time, he wanted to restore MDMA research– and also other psychedelic research– and cannabis research. And to make the research legitimate again. To have it be taken more seriously and also to enable use therapeutic applications to be legal again. To enable legal access to them. In order to do that, he saw that the political route was blocked. It wasn’t going to help to petition congress or to go through the legal system in that way because that way had been blocked. Because they already ignored the scientific testimony– it was clear that it wasn’t going to work. So Rick’s idea was to instead, do the research that would be necessary to show the FDA that there are in fact medical benefits to MDMA and other psychedelics– cannabis… when they’re used in specific ways. So in order to that– that’s a lot of work, like 33+ years of work. Convincing regulators to approve trials and obtaining the funding needed to do them, MAPS has raised $70 million dollars since 1986– $26.7 million just for our Phase 3 trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD. All of that has had to come from individual donors or small family foundations or a few businesses but all of it has had to come from individuals– which means we’ve had to ask for it all and that’s a great deal of work for a small company to try to raise all that money to try and do all this research. So that’s kind of the origin of MAPS.
FRANK151: History is being made and MAPS is making that difference in this world. How did Rick get people to support his efforts? I read that he did a thesis paper on psychedelics while in college.
BRAD: Yeah, he had done some psychedelic studies– he had some psychedelic experiences of his own. He had some especially difficult psychedelic experiences actually as he’s told some stories. And that had led him to seek guidance on it. He went to his college guidance counselor who gave him a book by Stan Grof. Stan Grof who pioneered transpersonal psychiatry who is now just publishing his latest book. And he discovered that there was this whole body of research dating back to the 1950’s– and actually 1940’s on psychedelics– that they had beneficial uses and therapeutic properties. That they could be used safely and effectively if they’re given the proper attention and care in how they were used. So that’s how he discovered these drugs on his own and overtime he found that there was this large body of evidence supporting their use. It’s just that they were ignored, pushed away or hidden in support of the war on drugs.
FRANK151: That’s astonishing. Taking it [psychedelics] in a scientific approach and observing it in a safe manner. Rather than just saying “Does it work?– Does it not work?” That makes a big difference in discovery and how psychedelics are used. Taking precautionary steps and finding further evidence scientifically is the best way in figuring out how things work. We’re all made up of atoms, cells and seeing what natural commodities create certain effects to our biochemistry is insightful. It’s all relative to science as we’re a biostructure of some sort so figuring out what we put into our systems and what chemicals, elements– we induce, how that creates a chemical reaction internally which changes our perception as well as our physiology. I mean, that’s the purpose of medicine: to help work with the body if ailments exist.
BRAD: Yeah, there’s really strong evidence in its scientific case and people really listen to that.
FRANK151: Was there a particular event in history in 1986 or was it Rick Doblin’s personal experiences both those beneficial and difficult that made him want to continue studying psychedelics? Was his psychedelic experiences more dependent on the dosage?
BRAD: I think he had difficult experiences because I think he just wasn’t adequately prepared for them. When psychological material comes up with psychedelics if there’s not a safe setting around that. That can be very difficult. Some people call them “bad trips.” We at MAPS like to call them “difficult experiences” because they’re not just bad– they are actually opportunities for growth and learning if there’s the right moral support and care provided for people. So MAPS has this Zendo project as part of what we do so that’s where we go to events such as Burning Man and other places– festivals all over the world and we provide support for people that are having these ‘difficult experiences’ as an alternative to being arrested or going to the hospital. So that way we’re also acknowledging the risks. This research is not to convince Rick Doblin [laughs]. This research is to convince regulators and the FDA– and the broader public.
FRANK151: It’s great to hear that MAPS is involved with humanitarian work as well. With psychedelics being illegal, society today is dealing with senseless crimes people are going to prison for things such as marijuana. Before the legalization of marijuana, it’s crazy to think that people would go to prison for however long because of marijuana.
BRAD: Absolutely and unfortunately they still are.
FRANK151: MAPS states it’s a non-profit research and education organization that develops spiritual, creative and cultural context for people through the careful uses of psychedelics and marijuana. Can you go into further depth about studies done at MAPS and offer information on your biggest breakthroughs both past & present? For example, your studies on those with PTSD.
BRAD: PTSD is definitely our biggest breakthrough in our Phase II Clinical Trials. There was an ideal expectation that the results were going to be positive. Otherwise we wouldn’t have done the research to begin with of course. That there was going to be some type affect MDMA was going to have. What we weren’t expecting was the magnitude of the effectiveness that we saw in the Phase II trials and that we’re hoping to see in the Phase III trials. Where we had over half the people in the Phase II trials, 54% didn’t have PTSD anymore– after treatment. So it’s not just that those people felt better or that their PTSD got better, it’s that they experienced such extreme reductions in their PTSD symptoms that their PTSD didn’t qualify them at all– anymore. Now just for comparison: antidepressants. When they say that antidepressants work, it means that people are getting “slightly better.” I’ve never heard a story of someone getting on antidepressants and having few or no PTSD symptoms anymore or just to suddenly have the full thing resolved in that way. But for our trials, we weren’t expecting that. The result of that, the FDA granted Rick Breakthrough Therapy Designation in August 2017. Which is basically getting extra credit on your assignment from the FDA. It’s where they say, “Not only are we going to let you go through with your Phase III Trials and that we’re going to consider your data, but we’re going to make a statement based on the data we’ve seen in the Phase II Trials.” This is a potentially significant advance over the currently available therapies. So that added some esteem to our fundraising efforts and that’s gone a long way to showing people that this research is really taking place and that it’s likely to succeed.
FRANK151: Can your studies on MDMA be expanded for not only people with PTSD, but overall for people with depression? Is it something that can have medicinal purposes beyond PTSD?
BRAD: That’s something we’re very curious about. Other researchers are talking about looking further into it. For the trials that we’re doing, it’s just for PTSD. That’s what it’s going to need to be approved for. Assuming the results are good. But we also look at other conditions. One study that we also completed with Phase II Trials was studying MDMA assisted therapy for social anxiety and adult autism spectrum. Not treating autism but social anxiety. That was a successful study. We published those results in 2017. Encouraging further research, but we’ve been focusing on PTSD program so we haven’t yet been able to do more. Then there was MDMA assisted psychotherapy for people with anxiety and for those that have a life-threatening illness which also was published and showed some significant results. Ultimately once it’s approved, it will be available off-label in the U.S. So once the doctors receive the training and the certification from MAPS to administer MDMA assisted psychotherapy as it’s been developed for PTSD, they’ll be able to prescribe it in combination with psychotherapy for any condition that they think it might be helpful for. That’s because of the laws in the United States around off-label use, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to know anything about how it works or whether it works for those conditions or those groups of people. More research would have to be done for the FDA to actually approve those uses.
FRANK151: Are people being monitored at a facility while the studies and clinical trials are being done or are patients prescribed the MDMA and then come back in for check-ups?
BRAD: It’s always in combination with therapy. That’s a super key difference between MDMA and cannabis. Cannabis is seen as a long treatment for symptoms whereas MDMA assisted therapy or psychedelic therapy in general is always combined with psychotherapy. So people will never get a prescription for the drugs and then go to a pharmacy and pick it up and take it home. It’ll only be available to physicians. Therapists who are not physicians can be the therapists if they’ve been through the certification with MAPS but there still needs to be a prescribing physician there. So always in combination with psychotherapy, it’ll always be administered with a certified therapist there in a therapeutic setting. Which means that people will have to come into the therapist’s office and they receive a single pill there and then they have to stay the entire time. While they’re under the effects of the drug.
FRANK151: I’ve never even thought of it that way. I think that there are people that may take psychedelics for a medicinal, therapeutic and/or even a spiritual journey. Sometimes it goes hand-in-hand with a person’s psychedelic experience but again, it’s not knowing what that affect might be at that particular time so it makes the most logical sense and the safest way in its usage and how to administer psychedelics.
BRAD: That’s the biggest– largest criticism and biggest misunderstanding with people. There’s people that go, “Oh gosh, they’re just going to give people MDMA to take everyday; of course they’re going to feel great.” Of course what people don’t realize is that it’s not possible to take MDMA that frequently. It just won’t work. In addition to the risks of doing that. Just emphasizing, that’s a huge piece of public health and harm reduction. Saying, “It’s just going to be used in a clinic. It’s just going to be used in therapy.” We’re not advocating that people go take it anywhere else. We don’t expect people to go to a club and take ecstasy to cure their PTSD. It doesn’t work that way.
FRANK151: That sounds like a movie. A comedy.
BRAD: Doesn’t it?! A tragic comedy.
FRANK151: Has the legalization of marijuana affected MAPS? Has the study of psychedelics become easier and more supported now to the legalization of marijuana?
BRAD: Yeah I absolutely think so. I think people are now more open to it because with marijuana and other schedule one drug with quote-on-quote no benefits actually realize that there are actually a lot of medical benefits. 90%– I mean I don’t know the statistics now, but almost everybody thinks that for some people, marijuana can have some medical benefits. It wasn’t the case 10 years ago. Now it’s over half of people, according to a survey– YOUGOV, it’s a british polling company. They did a survey of 1,100+ American Adults and they found– just 2 years ago– before Michael Pollan wrote his book. That more than half the people supported psychedelic research and more than half the people would do psychedelic therapy if it was approved.
FRANK151: That is great and amazing to hear because when I was younger, I had suffered from depression for many years and my doctors were trying to prescribe me antidepressants. I was always weary and never took them. I kept on telling them I would just try and exercise and eat better or something. And when I discovered marijuana and took it, it gave me this strange enlightenment that I didn’t even expect from it. And it opened up my eyes. Joe Rogan was talking about something on one of his podcasts that possibly the paranoia from marijuana is not necessarily a negative paranoia, but possibly the world cautioning someone about something going on in their internal world at that specific time in their life. Which kind of made sense to me–
BRAD: Yeah. I could totally imagine that. Well thanks for sharing that. I actually had a very similar experience. I was on medication for bipolar for many years. For 11 years and started using marijuana. I got off of that medication and started finding natural ways to manage my emotions. [laughs]
FRANK151: I think it’s crazy because that’s the hardest thing, I have two autoimmune diseases. I began getting paralyzed and unable to move at certain times and tried to care for my diseases holistically. Finally I gave in to trying pharmaceuticals prescribed by my doctor for my autoimmune diseases, but even now, I’m supposed to be taking my medicine once a week but take it when I feel the need to. Usually once every 5-6 months and I think that my symptoms are actually going away. So I think it’s about trying to help your body allow to cure itself with both psychedelic and other medicines which hopefully you can wean off of completely to be healed or in remission. I think there’s definitely some benefits in going the natural route, but again, not all pharmaceuticals are made for excess.
BRAD: A big benefit these, even semi-synthetic drugs such as MDMA, one kind of warning around this is, “Oh, this is just another drug. This isn’t fully from nature.” It’s emphasized that it’s not taken everyday. Taking these drugs in combination with psychotherapy with trained professionals in order to get off of drugs. You’re not going on another drug. Most of the work, at least for most of these people going through these trials– where a lot of the work, sometimes the scariest part is getting off of their antidepressants. And then they don’t go back on them. That can be the hardest and riskiest part.
FRANK151: What is MDMA exactly?
BRAD: It’s semi-synthetic. Related to mescaline which occurs naturally. It’s completely different in the fact that it’s developed in a lab. It’s not known to appear anywhere in nature– but first invented, as far as we know, by Merck Pharmaceutical Company in 1912– and patented in 1914. They were looking for a drug that they could patent that would help with blood clotting. It doesn’t clot blood. It was their intention. They patented 300 chemicals at a time in case one of them ends up being useful. So one of these that was patented during this research process was MDMA. Maybe they looked at it, maybe they didn’t look at it but either way it didn’t work. It was forgotten about completely until the 1950’s. As far as we know, nobody did anything with it from 1914 until 1950’s. Then the U.S. Army must have been going through old pharmaceutical records during the MK Ultra program when they were researching psychedelics like LSD, mescaline and MDMA as potential weapons of war. As potential mind control agents or interrogation tools– things like that. It didn’t work for that either and so they abandoned it again. Then MDMA was turned off from that until the 1970’s where a chemist was working for the D.E.A.– Alexander Shulgin, who was living in Berkley, stumbled across it and tried it. He tried it with his wife and started telling all his therapist friends about it and realized that it was potentially a really powerful drug to use for therapy. LSD had already been used since the 1950’s in therapy. All those army-chemical weapons experiments brought LSD to the attention of other people– to those that ended up actually popularizing it in the first place. And you have Shulgin experimenting in the 1970’s as a therapeutic tool and the rest is history.
FRANK151: That’s really interesting– like the saying goes, “You learn something new everyday.” I’ve learned many things during this interview.
BRAD: That’s great!
FRANK151: What are some of MAPS biggest goals for the next decade? What would MAPS like to accomplish?
BRAD: I could talk to you about our 3-year goal which is to get MDMA approved for PTSD. To have prescription approval. To have it covered by insurance. To have lots of different psychedelic therapy clinics available to get the treatment to people who need it. We’d like to be a sustainable non-profit so that we can have an income for the training of therapists in the sales of MDMA so we can then do more research in the usage of other conditions for things such as LSD, psilocybin, ayahuasca and all these other compounds too. So that’s our sort of our main goal as of now.
FRANK151: So MDMA is the focus right now for the next 3 years and then pretty much expanding from there– to ayahuasca… things like that.
FRANK151: How can people donate to MAPS or is there any other ways people can show their support?
BRAD: Thanks so much for asking. You can go to maps.org and you can donate right there. We do rely on individual donations for everything we do so that’s just number one way. Also signing up for our newsletter at maps.org.
FRANK151: Thanks Brad for taking the time to enlighten us. We appreciate it and look forward to seeing what’s next with MAPS.
BRAD: Thanks to you guys too for spreading the word about MAPS.
***For more information on how to donate visit www. maps.org