Fare Thee Well Interview Series: Rick Doblin

With The Grateful Dead’s 50th Anniversary shows approaching, and HeadCount organizing a "Participation Row" non-profit village at the shows, we are running a series of interviews with key people from non-profits and various social good initiatives tied to the Grateful Dead. Today, we talk to psychedelic researcher Rick Doblin. Click here to view other interviews in the series.

Rick Doblin is the Founder and Executive Director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a 501(c)(3) Non-Profit he started in 1986. MAPS helps scientists design, fund, and obtain regulatory approval for studies of the safety and effectiveness of a number of controlled substances, including MDMA, LSD, Psilocybin, Ibogaine, and Marijuana.

What is your relationship with the Grateful Dead?

I’ve been interested in the Grateful Dead since around 1970. [When I was younger] I wasn’t that much into music, but I got very interested in psychedelics, which led me to be very interested in the Grateful Dead. Actually, when I first started MAPS, it was a Florida nonprofit and you had to have three members on your board of directors and one of them was a friend of mine who we used to go to Dead shows together. I’m very interested in the Dead and psychedelics and creativity and also the role of psychedelics in communal spiritual experiences. The whole Dead community was very influential to me.

What is the connection between the Dead and psychedelics in your opinion?

The Grateful Dead were known for the Acid Tests. The more I started looking into Ken Kesey and the more I started learning about the Acid Tests and the Grateful Dead’s role in that, that’s what really cemented my [interest]. I grew up both very interested in the spiritual/therapeutic use of psychedelics but also in the celebratory. So that’s why MAPS has projects both in the scientific research and also in harm reduction at festivals.

[At Dead shows] the celebratory experiences with psychedelics really helped me see the community. How people could be brought together, and that the way the Dead shows would be designed in some ways with the space jam, the 2 drummers, the 2 guitarist things that would be really conducive for people that were tripping.

What are some of the projects you’re working on right now with MAPS that you’re especially proud of?

Well there are three. One of them that we’re particularly proud of is the work with MDMA for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. What I’m really proud of is we’re working with police officers, firefighters, veterans, people who've suffered childhood sexual abuse, adult rape and assault, and we’re able to look forward to the development of MDMA in 2021 as a prescription medicine. That’s our current timeline. And we have to do a whole lot to make that really happen but that’s becoming in some ways increasingly realistic.

The next is this work we’ve been doing since 1992 trying to do medical marijuana drug development research and we’ve recently overcome massive political resistance. Throughout those years we had multiple protocols approved by the FDA but we could never get the access to the marijuana. So finally we’ve overcome a lot of that resistance so we’re going to be starting a marijuana study for PTSD in 76 veterans and that’s the first drug development study in a very long time for the marijuana plant itself, not for extracts.

The third thing is the idea of harm reduction work we’re doing around the world, that’s part of this vision of a post-prohibition world, and it is also going back to the very early acid tests where when you read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and talk to people that were there, there were casualties there. There was a lot of freedom given, but some people had really difficult trips, and there wasn’t enough support for them. One of our main themes is that difficult is not the same as bad, once we’ve been able to really demonstrate that in all these models it’s a way to create a post prohibition world. There is a fundamental human right to explore your consciousness, and the drug war is a major affront to this fundamental human right, but then how do we deal with the fact that all sorts of people are going to have problems? So this model, under great duress that we’ve been able to demonstrate can work, is something I'm particularly proud of.

So for general recreational use MAPS is anti-prohibition?

Completely. It doesn’t mean that I’m anti-regulation. I think regulation on quality control [is important]. I think that there should be a license, like a driver's license, so you turn 21 you get a license, you get a little education if you want to do drugs like LSD or something, you have to pass a little test, you have to show what you know, just to show that you are a little aware to help ensure better outcomes, then you can buy LSD. but if you take lsd and have this bad experience and take off all your clothes and run naked down the road screaming and cause a car crash you lose your license to buy LSD for a while until you learn something then you get it back.

Do you feel like we’re on the cusp - or past the cusp - of a big change in our drug policy?

I don’t want to say that it’s inevitable. But I think that there has been a turning point, and that most opinion now is that we have tried and failed mass incarceration. That it’s a national embarrassment how many people we have in jail compared to other countries. And how racist it’s been. I do feel like there’s been a worldwide shift in opinion that prohibition has not worked. People have said that for more than a decade but they weren’t sure what to move to next. And that’s where I really like the harm reduction work that we’re doing. And if we can show that there’s a way to change our policy and to have legal access to these drugs without it turning into to total chaos, and without people having tragic terrible bad experiences and being emotionally damaged, that then the move towards alternatives would be easier. And I think that’s what’s happening. And I think that’s why the harm reduction work is so important. I think already the ocean liner of public opinion has changed direction.

I chatted with Wavy Gravy recently, about what he personally did at The Acid Tests and Woodstock and a lot of these festivals, and it sounded like what you’re describing - harm reduction - to a T.

They created the model, it’s fantastic. That’s the kind of acknowledgment that I think you didn’t hear that much from Tim Leary. Because Leary would have been more about here, take these drugs, you’re gonna get enlightened, you’re gonna be smarter than everybody else and be part of the wave of the future. And I think even if you are in the best of circumstances, super happy, and surrounded by people you care about, it’s inevitable that under the influence of psychedelics, difficult things will come up. So it’s not even to be avoided, these bad trips. It’s inevitable, and you accept that, and you can grow from that. Those are some of the most important experiences. And that’s the work that Wavy has pioneered. They recognize that it’s not so simple. People have very difficult experiences and they can grow from them, but you need to support them. And don’t talk about tranquilizing them or arresting them.

Let’s bring it back to the Dead. What does the MAPS team have in store for Chicago?

We’re gonna be bringing a video crew to our table, and we’re gonna be asking people to tell briefly a story of what psychedelics have meant to them, what the Grateful Dead have meant for them, and what lessons they have learned and might have for others. And we’re going to try to create a major video archive of hopefully thousands of people, at least hundreds of people, talking about what lessons they’ve learned so that there’s been this interaction of Dead Heads and psychedelics for 50 years, and what kind of lessons does this community have for that, for others, and what did they learn.

We’re going to be educating about how in the 50 years since the Dead began our culture has advanced to the point where now it does seem like we can integrate psychedelics into the mainstream. That was one of the bigger things of where I think Tim Leary went wrong, was this idea of the counterculture. And of course the culture itself was so repressive and was sort of pushing people in that direction, but our sort of lesson from the 60s is that we’re not wanting to be the counterculture. We want to be a part of the culture - the mainstream culture - and psychedelics aren’t inherently destructive of culture and people’s participation in it. So I think what we’re hoping to do at the Dead shows is really take people’s testimony. And a lot of these people have integrated into society and made a lot of positive contributions to our world.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Well, in the 60s people didn’t talk about death. You didn’t talk about cancer if you had it. For birth, women were tranquilized; men were not allowed in the delivery rooms. Yoga was weird, and meditation was Maharishi oh weird people from India. And we really didn’t have a good approach to death, to birth, or to sort of spirituality. And now our culture has got hospice centers everywhere, birthing centers everywhere. You know, yoga and meditation are mainstream. So I think we set the groundwork for integrating psychedelics into our culture. So what I’d like people to know is that we have this rare opportunity that has been 50 years in the making to take the insights from what was both science and popular use, but then massive backlash starting with the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. Now we have a chance to undo all that, and integrate ourselves and psychedelics into our culture as part of it. I think we have such major challenges ahead, including global warming and environmental destruction and nuclear proliferation and the rise of fundamentalism that we see. I think that spirituality, consciousness, psychedelics, and communal celebratory experiences that bring people together like the Dead shows - that we have a chance to become mainstream and we should welcome that. To the extent that people see that there’s something romantic about being part of counterculture, I think we should get over that.