Editor’s note: As the use of psychoactive substances has begun to turn into reality in MAPS treatment for mental health, addiction and end-of-life issues, MAPS’s dedication and innovation are essential to making this moment possible. This story is the first in a series on the organization and its work.
Rick Doblin never planned to go into drug policy. A psychologist who had been interested in the connection between the mental and spiritual benefits of marijuana and psychedelics, had his first encounter with LSD during college in 1972. The experience was so profound that it propelled him further into research and clinical practice, determined to study the full effects of psychoactive substances like marijuana, psilocybin, ayahuasca, LSD and MDMA on mental and spiritual health.
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But in 1984, U.S. drug policies began to change: the government criminalized substances like LSD and psilocybin, among others. MDMA, which was legal at the time, was likely next. First developed as a blood-clotting agent, the drug had been used for mental health treatment for years before it became a favored substance of the club scene.
Doblin was determined not to let that happen. Together with two partners, he filed a lawsuit against the DEA’s effort to make MDMA a Schedule 1 drug. They lost that battle, but it spurred him to create the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), and launch what has become a decades-long effort to change the cultural, medical and legal approaches to psychedelics through education, research and advocacy.
MAPS treatment for mental health
“MAPS was founded when MDMA was first criminalized with the intention of, we’re going to do research with MDMA in the medical system to help change the system,” says Natalie Ginsberg, Global Impact Officer for MAPS. “The idea was, we can show that it doesn’t belong there and the whole war on drugs is a sham.”
Breakthrough for Psychedelic Medicine
It would take decades of work before the legal tide would begin to turn. In 2019, Denver, CO, became the first city in the U.S. to decriminalize psilocybin, the active compound in so-called “magic” mushrooms. Other U.S. cities have begun to follow suit in the kind of collective, cultural moment that MAPS’s advocacy has catalyzed, both indirectly (as in Denver) and directly, with similar, statewide proposals in places like Oregon and California.
Along the way, says Ginsberg, there have been a handful of initiatives and impact points that illustrate the way MAPS works and how it’s moved the needle on public sentiment about psychedelics.
“We say we’re like the switchboard operator because you’re connected to everyone,” says Ginsberg. “Rick is involved in all of these projects, advising and connecting. It’s this work that I feel is some of the most important that MAPS is doing.”
Some of that work entails research studies—the proof points to help convince doctors that drugs like marijuana, MDMA and psilocybin, when used in clinical settings, can be a life-changing tool. Among MAPS’s numerous studies, perhaps the most groundbreaking, says Ginsberg, is one with MDMA-assisted therapy. After the research program, two-thirds of the study’s participants no longer qualified as PTSD patients.
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In addition to that project, MAPS has conducted numerous studies on LSD, marijuana, MDMA and ayahuasca and their respective impact on everything from anxiety to eating disorders. More recently, in 2021 the organization won a $12.9M grant from the state of Michigan to expand cannabis research for veterans with PTSD.
Another impact point are its psychedelic conferences. In June 2023, the organization will host its fourth such convocation, bringing together scientists, activists, entrepreneurs and others from the growing community for what it describes as “the biggest week of the psychedelic renaissance.” The last time MAPS hosted its conference, in 2017, about 4,000 people attended, according to Ginsberg. At its next event, next year, she estimates that 10,000 people will be there, making it, indeed, the largest gathering of its kind.
It’s events like these, combined with research and advocacy, that have arguably helped shift the public conversation around psychedelics, which has begun to create a kind of snowball effect. Ginsberg cites best-selling author Michael Pollan’s 2018 book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence, as another turning point. The book, she says, features research by MAPS, among other groups.
“It was a cultural tipping point and legitimization like, okay, even Michael Pollan is talking about psychedelics,” she says.
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Among the myriad of types of work that MAPS does, however, Ginsberg is focused less on the big study or book-release variety and more on the interpersonal.
“One of the things I’m most proud of is our public education, engagement, and media work,” she says. “It’s really spending time to build bridges when people ask questions. It’s taking the time to educate different doctors, who might be skeptical at first, and then we show this research. People come to our trainings and leave with their jaws on the floor.”
The milestones, then—the slow work of changing hearts and minds about psychedelics, MDMA and other drugs that are still illegal in most places—aren’t necessarily quantifiable in single moments. Instead, it’s been 35-plus years of effort that’s still ongoing. Training sessions, long-term studies, grant applications and yes, speaking with journalists (for stories such as this one, and this one, on ketamine treatments).
Taken together, each one one the small steps of a journey that began during the Reagan administration is adding up to a sea change: for drug policy, public perception, mental health and consumers.
“Self magazine declared 2021 the year that psychedelics went mainstream,” says Ginsberg. “And I do feel like there is this new openness to it. Every therapist now needs to educate themselves because their clients are all asking about it; the movement is just growing in a beautiful, organic way.”
What do you think about MAPS treatment for mental health? Have you had any experience with these, and how have they helped you?