Soon, psychedelic drugs may find themselves in the hands of clinical therapists.
From its small headquarters in Santa Cruz, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is rapidly revolutionizing the international definition of conventional modern medicine. MAPS’ mission is clear — to find purposeful, clinical uses for psychedelics that, up until recently, were considered nothing but destructive to the human body.
Founded in 1986 by president Rick Doblin, the 501(c)3 nonprofit, funded entirely by private donations, is changing the way many people see substances like LSD, marijuana, MDMA, and psilocybin mushrooms by exploring their psychological and medical benefits.
Inside the nondescript building, a handful of the MAPS staff is hard at work. Data in need of organization comes pouring in from their clinical tests across the world. The staff is charged with making this information presentable to the U.S. Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMEA).
The global scope of MAPS’ research is no accident. MAPS wants to see psychedelics accepted everywhere.
Standing Up to the Feds
Many psychedelic drugs, such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), marijuana, and psilocybin are criminalized by the Federal Controlled Substance Act of 1970, which gives the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) the authority to classify drugs into schedules. The DEA lists these drugs as “Schedule I,” meaning they are not considered legitimate for medical use.
The decision to list psychedelics as Schedule I, however, has drawn a lot of heated criticism from both underground supporters and from research institutions like MAPS.
Brian Wallace, MAPS director of field development, takes issue with the categorization of psychedelics as Schedule I. “Schedule I drugs are supposed to have no medical value,” Wallace said. “Psychedelics, when used properly, can definitely be beneficial for things like psychotherapeutic treatment.”
Labeling a drug Schedule I is supposed to indicate that the substance is detrimental to the human condition. Notoriously criminalized drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, are listed among these. By simple association in this regard, psychedelics have struggled to gain ground in scientific and medical research.
“Psychedelic studies are just not completely understood by the DEA,” Wallace said. “People have been blocked from gaining better understanding of psychedelics, like MDMA, for decades because of their criminalization.”
MDMA — or Methylenedioxymethamphetamine — is one such drug that MAPS has been fighting for. Since its foundation, the organization has struggled to bring MDMA, labeled a Schedule I drug by the DEA, back into the scientific research spotlight.
MDMA is scientifically known to release serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine from the human brain. However, it is more publicly recognized as a key ingredient in the popular underground drug ecstasy.
MAPS, however, sees potential for the party drug. In its pursuit for practical clinical applications of psychedelic drugs, MAPS has found a likely use for MDMA in the most unlikely of places: the United States military.
War veterans, a demographic well-known for suffering from chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are MAPS’ next viable candidates for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy trials. Scientists claim that soldiers, consistently exposed to traumatic events, develop a stronger, more reinforced case of PTSD than others. MAPS leaders claim that America’s soldiers make for the perfect research participants.
Even here, however, MAPS encounters resistance to its psychedelic research. This is made evident by the U.S. Department for Veteran Affairs’ continual rejection of proposed research grants. Jared Dunne, a spokesperson for the National Institute for PTSD, favors current authorized prescription drugs over MDMA.
“We’re aware of the trials being conducted with MDMA and medical marijuana,” Dunne said. “However, none of these drugs are currently acceptable prescriptions. There’s not nearly enough research done to lead me to believe that they can be.”
Previous research on MDMA — not conducted by MAPS and its associates — was geared toward exploring the drug’s harmful effects. Their results boosted the already intense skepticism over the psychedelic drug. The symptoms derived from the research — including overheating of the body, acute thirst, and long-term brain damage — have often been cited as cause for concern in experimenting with the drug.
MAPS is quick to label raves — scenes commonly associated with ecstasy — to be the primary cause of overheating. Also, many of the claims made by scientists that MDMA is the cause of brain damage have either been retracted or shown to contain major methodological flaws.
The Science Behind the Trip
MDMA’s unique chemical and psychological effects on the brain enable users to confront intensely challenging emotions and difficult experiences in their lives with relative ease. As a trial psychotherapeutic drug, MDMA shows potential to allow patients suffering from PTSD to permanently overcome the havoc their condition wreaks on their lives. Administered just three to four times per month for less than a year, MAPS researchers have found confidence in MDMA’s adequacy in treating PTSD.
Since graduating from UC Santa Cruz with her Ph.D. in Molecular Cell and Developmental Biology, MAPS clinical research associate Berra Yazar-Klosinski now oversees all MAPS clinical trials conducted domestically and internationally. She expressed satisfaction with the results the trials have yielded, and sees little reason why MDMA shouldn’t be successfully made a therapy-assist drug.
“MDMA is able to allow participants to remember suppressed negative events through the removal of fear,” Yazar-Klosinski said. “The results are compelling, with participants testing better [with MDMA] than with alternatives, like Zoloft.”
According to MAPS, unlike other legalized PTSD medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), such as Paxil or Zoloft, MDMA binds with more kinds of neurotransmitters within the brain than just serotonin, making it comparatively more effective.
“Essentially, MDMA can make people feel comfortable about confronting very difficult experiences in their lives,” said Field Development Director Wallace. “It’s very adept at removing fear and anxiety from these kinds of topics, which is why we recognize its potential for PTSD.”
Initial tests indicate a larger drop in participants’ Clinician-Administered PTSD Scale (CAPS) scores with MDMA than with Zoloft or Paxil. The drop was significant enough that they could no longer clinically diagnose them for PTSD in nearly all of the patients.
Where other treatments fail, MAPS’ little pill allows some to finally have clarity of mind. Since every single one of the research participants who approaches MAPS must have tried other methods to treat their PTSD before being accepted as a volunteer for any MDMA clinical trials, the positive effects of MDMA prove to be a saving grace.
“Nearly all of the participants in the first MDMA-assisted trial no longer displayed sufficient symptoms of PTSD by its end,” Yazar-Klosinski said. “It’s very promising. If our next series of trials on PTSD in war veterans proves to be as effective — and we expect it to — then we’ll be well on our way to seeing MDMA in the hands of therapists.”
A Battle on Two Fronts
Although MAPS describes itself as a nonprofit pharmaceutical company, it faces one unique problem that many pharmaceuticals do not. All psychological drugs must go through the trials outlined by the FDA and the EMEA. Few face the notoriety that psychedelics do before they are even authorized for testing.
MAPS intern Brian Brown, a fourth-year anthropology major from Porter College, is convinced that MDMA research is about to take off, if only it can get past its stigma.
“MAPS is just as much about clinical trials as it is about outreach,” Brown said. “People don’t want to admit the validity of what’s going on. The importance of perception is huge.”
Ever since the counterculture movements of the 1960s, psychedelics have mostly become either demonized or worshipped by the public — depending on which crowd you talk to. The strong dichotomy of opinion has forced MAPS to try to convince the public of MDMA’s legitimacy as a clinical drug before it has even reached the FDA for consideration.
The DEA’s decision to criminalize MDMA has brought about a shroud of hesitance when it comes to research potential for the drug. Brian Wallace believes that there is just as much work that needs to be done in regards to MDMA outreach as there is for scholarly research.
“A big foothold for MAPS would be to dispel the myths surrounding MDMA,” Wallace said. “Millions of dollars were spent researching the harmful effects of MDMA, and all of the results have been inconclusive.”
The people who are most intimately familiar with the effects of MDMA are precisely those who burden MAPS with negative public opinion — the recreational users. UCSC students and ecstasy users Garett and Joey, whose last names have been omitted for the sake of anonymity, say that they recognize both the practical applications MDMA can offer to PTSD patients, as well as the problems MAPS faces due to the drug’s underground use.
“There’s this overlying sense of stigma that what’s illegal is also considered troublemaking,” Garett said. “The way I see MDMA, and psychedelics in general, is that they’re not drugs, but experiences. Amongst my friends and the people I know, MDMA produces less negative trends than other drugs might.”
“The experience is like a smile, a contagious one, you know? And it’s like nothing can bring you down,” Joey said. “Any free night with nothing to do is good cause enough. Usually someone pops up and has it for like, $10 a hit.”
In its first U.S. pilot study for MDMA, it cost MAPS $31,746 per dose of 125mg. In comparison, it costs only $20 for someone like Garett or Joey to acquire ‘Molly,’ a pure powder form of MDMA.
The vibrant, underground culture of psychedelics leaves MAPS in a very difficult position. The majority of its supporters stem from underground movements. The sheer illegality of MDMA may leave the more conservative unconvinced. Thus, MAPS must constantly toe the public opinion line, both distancing itself from those who would support its efforts most, while also acknowledging MDMA’s background as being causal for its efforts.
On the Psychedelic Horizon
For MAPS, progress is measurable, definitive, and gaining momentum. While its research is anything but cheap, none of their studies have been slowed down due to lack of resources. Operating on a $1-2 million budget per year made possible by private donations, MAPS has been able to jump-start clinical trials in Switzerland, Israel, Canada, Spain, and Jordan, in addition to the United States.
MAPS Director of Communications and Marketing Randolph Hencken is optimistic about the future for MAPS and its MDMA research.
“Another eight to 10 years and $8-10 million and we’ll be there,” Hencken said. “Our two pilot studies, in Switzerland and the U.S., were very promising. While we’ve had to jump through a lot of hoops to make it happen, it’s happening.”
For many at MAPS, the question of success is not a matter of if, but when. Field Development Director Wallace attributes limited funding to being the only reason MDMA isn’t already a therapeutic drug. He believes that the clinical trials are just an expensive formality.
“If money weren’t an issue, then MDMA would already be available to those who need it,” Wallace said. “Besides volunteering, the best way people can help us right now is donating funds. Give us money!”
MAPS is actively tackling the problem of public perception as well, having held a conference last month in San Jose titled “Psychedelic Science in the 21st Century.” The conference’s goal was to raise public awareness and educate those interested in psychedelic studies. While MAPS hoped the conference would attract medical and therapeutic professionals, they also wanted the general public to feel welcome to attend as well. The San Jose conference attracted roughly 2,000 people.
At the “Psychedelic Science in the 21st Century” conference, clinical science met visionary art, and the institutionally serious interacted with underground casual users. Just as MDMA works to bring down walls of apprehension, the conference facilitated a blending of two otherwise radically different backgrounds.
Emphasizing the multidisciplinary nature of the organization as well as the importance of its MDMA research, MAPS Clinical Research Associate Berra Yazar-Klosinski expressed nothing but determination for achieving success.
“We know the science, we know how to do the research now. We’re seeing explosive expansion in the number of clinical trials we’re doing, and we’re getting a lot of positive feedback from them,” Yazar-Klosinski said. “At least we should have objective scientific investment into psychedelics, rather than fear-based rejection.”