Rick Doblin founded the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in 1986, as a “non-profit research and educational organization that develops medical, legal, and cultural contexts for people to benefit from the careful uses of psychedelics and marijuana.”*.
As a non-profit, MAPS is an unlikely player in a drug-development field dominated by big pharma and its deep pockets. But Doblin’s vision, and the righteousness of MAPS’ cause, has persuaded donors from across the aisles to fund the organization’s research efforts. Now, after decades of focused, strategic effort, MAPS has achieved what could only seem a fantasy at the time of its founding – securing FDA approval to conduct a Phase III study of a psychedelic drug – in this case MDMA – for treatment-resistant PTSD.
In our zoom-versation, I asked Doblin, a baby boomer who has walked the psychedelic walk nearly his entire life, for his uniquely informed perspective on mind-altering experiences as they pertain to his cohort and the elderly. At the end of our interview, Doblin observed that the psychedelic movement of his youth was bereft of the guidance of elders. Fifty years later, in the blossoming of a new psychedelic renaissance, Doblin is clearly an elder we can look to to guide us on the spirit- and world-healing powers of psychedelic drugs.
Abbie Rosner: Do you think psychedelic drugs have a unique relevance for baby boomers and older adults?
Rick Doblin: I think it’s kind of a natural thing that as you get older you start thinking more about death, spirituality and what is your life’s meaning and what you want to do with your time. So psychedelics are great for all of that. You know, psychedelics in the hospice center context are going to be terrific, as are psychedelics when people have a life-threatening illness.
I’ve worked with people with MDMA in underground settings days before they died, and it was just incredibly helpful. It’s actually a pain killer as well. You take MDMA with opiates and you get better pain control, it wakes you up and you’re more alert. So there’s just an enormous amount of potential uses for boomers and elderly people.
Rosner: Do you do you feel like there is a particular drug that’s most appropriate for older adults?
Doblin: No. You could say in general, that the classic psychedelics like LSD, mescaline, psilocybin, ayahuasca…they’re more challenging psychologically than they are physiologically. Ayahuasca you vomit, and ibogaine has effects on the heart. But generally LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, DMT, ketamine, they’re physically safe and psychologically challenging. Whereas MDMA, because of its effect on blood pressure and temperature, it’s a little bit more physiologically challenging, but psychologically easier.
The other part is about psychedelic medicine or psychedelic therapy, and what that means is that people can have a sequence of experiences. I think in general, people will begin with MDMA but then they may switch to other drugs. They may go back to MDMA at the end or any number of different kinds of combinations will be happening, so I don’t think we could say there’s one drug that’s the best for boomers. It all depends on what their issues are, what their state of health is, what their prior experiences are, the context…
Rosner: If I did an LSD trip when I was in my 20s and now I’m in my 60s or 70s, maybe a 12 hour LSD trip is a little challenging when I could use psilocybin and have an experience in half the time.
Doblin: Well that’s certainly true, but on the other hand, there’s sometimes advantages to the things that take longer, or not. Everybody has to decide what they are up for. For example, DMT when you smoke it, (its effects last for) 10 or 15 minutes. But when you take it orally in the form of ayahuasca, it lasts for hours. And I think most people have the sense that there’s more that they can learn from ayahuasca in the slower version than from DMT, although you can learn from both. So I think that there is that aspect of it. Certain things take shorter periods of time. Psilocybin is a little bit more embodied than LSD so it’s easier for people. It is shorter – it ends kind of quickly, even. So those are just different flavors of different drugs. You can’t say based on that that one is better for the elderly.
Rosner: What would you say to someone in their 60s or 70s who told you that they had tripped on acid in college and was interested in it now, but was afraid of having a bad trip?
Doblin: Well, first I’d ask what they were afraid of. But I would say it’s important to start with MDMA. You’re less likely to have a bad trip and you will learn about dredging things up from the unconscious and how to process them. And then if you want to move to psilocybin or LSD, you can do so… If you’re afraid, start with MDMA. It reduces fear.
Rosner: Are we ever too old for a psychedelic experience?
Doblin: First, the answer is no. The FDA has said to us that adult means 18 years. So we have a lower age limit in our studies of 18 years. But we don’t have an upper age limit. Because it’s not about age, it’s about health. And if we’re talking about these drugs in the hospice setting and end of life, it just doesn’t make sense to have an age limit… Think of Michael Pollan. He didn’t start doing things until he was in his 60s.
[Pioneering psychedelic researcher] Stan Grof had a quote that he used to say, that he who dies (experiences ego dissolution) before he dies, doesn’t die when he dies. What that means is that you still die but you don’t necessarily feel like it’s been meaningless or it’s all over. You recognize that there are echoes of your existence that are still around.
What I’ve seen in some of the people that were facing life threatening illnesses is that, through the psychedelic experience, they lost a lot of their fear of death. And they switched their focus from the time they’re not going to have… to the time that they do have. And they lived the time that they did have more fully.
So I think one of the things you can say is that, for psychedelically experienced boomers, there will probably be a lot less of this “prolong life at all cost” at the end of life, which is where the vast amount of healthcare resources are spent to prolong life for a month or two or three at the end. … There’ll be a lot more willingness to embrace death, rather than do whatever they can to forestall it.
I would just add that the cultures that have successfully integrated psychedelics, like the Native American church that has half a million members that use peyote, or the ayahuasca churches, that they don’t have this concept we have of age limits, and that it’s all forbidden if you’re a minor. It’s more done in the family context.
One of the problems of the boomers is that, when we got into psychedelics, there were no elders to teach us anything about it. So I would say that the other part of the boomer job is going to be to introduce the value of psychedelics to their grandchildren. We need to get back to that multi-generational transmission and elder support for initiating younger people into these experiences.
Rosner: If that’s the case, I think that, in a larger sense, you and MAPS are helping fulfill that role for society. Because at this point I don’t see a whole cohort of elders who can do that work.
* from the MAPS website