Rick Doblin, the Scientist On A Mission to Heal the World with MDMA

Harvard-educated Doblin’s 30-year crusade for a ‘psychedelic renaissance’ is bearing fruit, as the first legal MDMA clinics to treat PTSD will open in the US in late 2019.

27.08.2019 | by Christy Romer
Photo by Tyler Lastovich on Unsplash
Photo by Tyler Lastovich on Unsplash

Think MDMA, or one of its street names, such as Ecstasy, and you’d probably imagine strobe lighting and electronic music. Maybe grinning people, multi-coloured pills and grinding teeth. Maybe danger.

But for Rick Doblin, a Harvard-educated scientist, MDMA and the wider spectrum of psychedelic drugs signify something much more profound: the potential to unravel trauma and heal entire communities.

He’s spent decades trying to convince the US Government that when used in the right contexts, alongside more conventional forms of therapy, the drugs can serve as an antidote to the “tribalism, fundamentalism and genocide” which have long plagued humanity.

And now Doblin’s ‘Psychedelic Renaissance’ has just made its biggest step forward. A wave of MDMA clinics will open to treat treatment-resistant PTSD in the US from late 2019, joining the 100 clinics that currently offer Ketamine-based treatment.

Not just a party drug


Doblin’s is a compelling case which is spelled out wonderfully in both a recent TED talk, which has more than 1.5m views, and in numerous podcast appearances.

Although MDMA was developed in 1912, it was relatively uninteresting for researchers until the ‘50s and ‘60s, when the medical community began to embrace the power of psychedelics to tackle trauma and wellbeing. Once the drugs spilled out of the medical setting and became wrapped up in the counterculture movement of the 1960s, however, the US Government — driven by fear, and an inevitable rise in unwise use — cracked down on their availability, introducing the highest level of criminality and demonising the compounds on an international scale.

Doblin experimented with psychedelics at college in the 70s. He learned more about MDMA’s ability to increase feelings of trust and wellbeing, which permit people to re-examine and get over traumatic memories. Through this, he became firmly committed to the idea that psychedelics can offer a revolutionary shift in global consciousness. He likened the impact to the first images of the earth from outer space — something that made it more difficult to dismiss a concept of global humanity, or be blinded by artificial divisions created by borders and religion.

“Is our individual ego the centre of the world, which feels that way to us,” the scientist, now Executive Director of research organisation MAPS, asks in a recent Evolve Earth podcast. “No, we’re part of something bigger.

“We’re a small part of group consciousness.”

Rick Doblin speaks at TED2019: Bigger Than Us. April 15 – 19, 2019, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Bret Hartman / TED


Pressing medical need


But no. It’s not all just about ‘oneness.’

Doblin explains in the TED talk that there are currently eight million patients struggling to live with PTSD in the US.

“The field of psychiatry and psychotherapy has realised that the current crop of drugs leave a lot of treatment-resistant people,” Doblin says in the podcast. “Sometimes people are just too traumatised to start talking about their trauma.

“There’s a large body of people who need something more, and over the years we’ve demonstrated that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy can be a big part of that.”

He’s clear that most psychiatric drugs are designed to address the symptoms of mental problems, and to be taken on a daily basis. Psychedelic therapy, by contrast, goes after the root cause of issues and sees the drugs taken a limited number of times (in current trials, three times across a 3 ½ month period, alongside 12 sessions of more conventional therapy).

Similarly, he’s adamant that the drug itself is not the treatment, but a constituent element of the therapy. He says there’s no ‘good’ drugs and ‘bad’ drugs — only the context in which they’re used. He cites the example of Thalidomide, a drug used to treat morning sickness that ended up producing babies with severe deformations across Europe. One US official was proclaimed a national hero for preventing the drug from entering the country in the mid 20th century — yet now Thalidomide is a recognised medicine in the US for cancer and leprosy.

Controlled use


Doblin’s vision therefore isn’t about a free-for-all on street corner pills or back-alley baggies. It’s about a controlled, educated use, with a direct connection to a clinical setting.

At first, people with treatment-resistant PTSD would be able to access the MDMA therapy through the special clinics that will open by the end of 2019.

Following other research by MAPS, this would eventually be offered to others with any form of trauma, and then — perhaps most surprisingly — their spouses and families. This idea, backed by consistent research, is based on the idea that it’s not only the person with trauma that is affected and needs the right sort of therapy to heal.

Doblin hopes that the US Government would legalise a medicinal form of MDMA by 2021-22, before taking steps towards what he calls “licensed legalisation”.

Source: Rave Jungle


Licensed Legalisation?


In the Evolving Earth podcast, he explains that this would work in a similar way to driving tests: people would have to learn about and have an experience with MDMA under the supervision of experts, then take a test to prove their understanding of what using the drug entails. Once deemed qualified, they’d be able to be awarded a recreational license.

He adds that if anyone misbehaves — by, for example, taking LSD and causing a public disturbance — they would be punished for their behaviour and have their license removed for a set amount of time.

In fact, this is a system that he thinks should even be applied to the use of alcohol and marijuana, in US states in which it’s legal. He asks why drivers caught under the influence of alcohol only have their driving license removed, and not their right to buy alcohol.

Although Doblin is confident about the potential for progress, he doesn’t think the licensed legalisation will happen until around 2035 — given the amount of time it took for cannabis to be moved from ‘legalised medicinal use’ to ‘legalised recreational use’ in some states.

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