Spotlight on Psychedelic Pioneers: Rick Doblin

Rick Doblin
By Brian Lissak

Out of the Ashes, a Dream

Rick Doblin was born in 1953 to a Jewish family in suburban Chicago. Though his family emigrated to America before World War Two, there were many Holocaust survivors in his community. Undertones of the fear, baseless hatred, and lethal consequences of discrimination played a large role in his early life.

In his early 20s, Doblin had a dream that would set the stage for the rest of his life. In the dream, a man who had survived a Nazi massacre told Doblin that he’d lived in order to give him a message. Doblin was to devote his life to promoting psychedelics as a cure for humanity’s ills and a bulwark against another horrendous genocide.

Rick took the message to heart.

Turning the Dream into Reality

Doblin enrolled in the experimental New College in Sarasota, Florida to study psychology. He described it as a never-ending party. Days were for lounging poolside in the nude, and nights for dancing while on psychedelics. He first tried LSD his freshman year. Disappointed with the lack of spiritual and emotional connection in his youth, he had finally found it. “When I first started taking LSD, I was like, this is what my bar mitzvah should have done. This is engaging me at the existential, spiritual, emotional levels that really can produce a rite of passage, that this is what I was missing.”

Inspired by the potential of psychedelics, Doblin became involved with other psychedelic enthusiasts. This underground community was quietly developing techniques for using psychedelics therapeutically. It was here that Doblin met Dr. Stanislov Grof, the famed Czech psychiatrist and early LSD researcher. Doblin would eventually become one of the first certified practitioners of Holotropic Breathwork under Grof.

Even before his graduation in 1987, Doblin earned a reputation advocating for MDMA, a powerful therapeutic catalyst emerging in those days as a new party drug. Doblin realized that in order to legitimize psychedelics as a medicinal tool, research would have to prove it. In 1984, he co-founded Earth Metabolic Design Laboratories, and in 1986, he founded the nonprofit MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies). Doblin graduated in 1987, writing his thesis as a 25-year followup to Timothy Leary and Ram Dass’s famous Good Friday Experiment.

MAPS: The Real Fight Begins

In 1985, the DEA declared MDMA a Schedule 1 narcotic, the most restrictive designation. Doblin founded MAPS with the original goal of gaining FDA approval for MDMA. MAPS has since expanded to encompass all psychedelic research and lobby for its medical legalization. For the next thirty years, Doblin fought an uphill battle. At times, it seemed hopeless, with regulators so entrenched in their biases against psychedelics that no progress was materializing. Doblin realized he lacked the requisite skills. He enrolled in Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and received his PhD in public policy in 2001. His dissertation was on the regulation of the medical use of psychedelics and cannabis.

A New Era

Today, psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is inching closer to legalization. Though many people and organizations contribute to this effort, the driving engine behind this crusade is Rick Doblin. Under MAPS’ umbrella, Israel became the first country to approve the compassionate use of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD. In 2017, the FDA designated MDMA as a “breakthrough therapy” and approved phase 3 trials, usually the last stop before full legalization. Johns Hopkins and NYU are also conducting clinical research into psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy which has been proven to treat such ailments as depression, PTSD, anxiety, and end-of-life care. These studies aren’t just looking at treating illness. Positive effects on healthy individuals are under consideration as well. Much of this research is connected to MAPS.

The fruits of Doblin’s labor are finally beginning to ripen. Earlier this year, Oregon became the first state to legalize psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy. Investors are already beginning to speculate on a psychedelics industry, reminiscent of the medical marijuana boom a decade ago. And Michael Pollan’s book “How To Change Your Mind” detailing the new wave of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy topped the bestseller list in 2018.

Looking Forward: “Licensed Legalization

Unlike many involved in the research, Doblin is unapologetically advocating for broad legalization. Doblin proposes “licensed legalization” in which the right to use psychedelics is similar to using a car. After using psychedelics in a supervised setting, a license is granted for responsible use. Just like a driver’s license, it can be taken away if abused.

Doblin’s forty-plus years as a psychedelic advocate have taught him some patience. He doesn’t expect licensed legalization until at least 2035. Achieving medical legalization is the first step, he says. The general public needs to acclimate to psychedelics as a healing tool, not a destructive one. He predicts that after a decade or so of medical use, the groundwork will be laid for general use. “Medicalization leads to legalization because you’ve got fear and misinformation and people thinking that one dose, brain damage, functional consequences, addiction, stay away. There’s just such decades and decades and decades of propaganda and fear. And how do you overcome that? That’s where medicalization comes in. If you can show that the benefits outweigh the risks, it causes people to start thinking.”

Reminiscent of the earliest pioneers of psychedelics, Doblin believes psychedelics have the power to heal humanity. This rhetoric has not always made him a popular figure. Especially when trying to gain the support of risk-averse institutions, this Leary-esque vision earned him quite a few naysayers. But fears of broad legalization bringing another crackdown – as Leary experienced – are likely unfounded. Though only time will tell, it seems likely that psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, which has already helped thousands, will achieve legalization. “I’m completely vindicated,” said Doblin.