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Rick Doblin Knows Exactly What He's Doing
He wants to legalize psychedelics, and he says so!
Reason’s Nick Gillespie has a new interview out with Rick Doblin, the president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). You don’t have to watch the whole thing, but gosh, it is informative.
The two sat down earlier this summer at the Psychedelic Science conference in Denver. The conference, which MAPS organized, was something of a coming out party for the psychedelic rennaisance. 11,000 people gathered to hear speakers from Aaron Rodgers to Gov. Rick Perry extoll the virtues of psychedelics.
There’s a reason such people are jumping on the train. the FDA is soon expected to approve psyilocybin and MDMA for therapeutic applications; it’s already signed off on Ketamine for depression.1 Oregon has decriminalized psychedelics as part of its comprehensive decriminalization law, Measure 110, and Colorado has done so under the auspices of the “Natural Medicine Health Act.” So-called “magic mushrooms” are decriminalized in Washington, D.C. under Initiative 81 (if you walk around D.C., you can now buy them at many dispensaries). There are ballot initiatives trying to legalize therapeutic psychedelics in California and Massachussetts; California may get there legislatively before voters do.
The push, more or less, is a) to “decriminalize” possession, cultivation, etc. and b) legalize for “therapeutic” purposes. And to be fair, it seems plausible that psychedelics have therapeutic efficacy for treating a number of mental health conditions (see, e.g., Johns Hopkins). But there is a lot of range in what constitutes therapeutic availability. Psilocybin is a Schedule 1 drug (“no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse”) while metamphetamine is Schedule 2 (accepted medical use but with abuse potential, essentially). In 2021 pharmacies ordered about 5 kg of meth, which was presumably distributed to the handful of people with ADHD severe enough to warrant Desoxyn prescription.
In other words, it’s possible for a dangerous substance to be made available for medical application in strictly controlled setting. But the goal with the new psychedelic movement is not to create availability for a restricted set of patients with treatment-resistant mental-health problems dosing under the supervision of medical professionals. The goal is to get people drugs.
Don’t believe me? Here’s Doblin in the video above (transcription mine):
I think that everybody is traumatized. When we think about the mass extinctions that are going on. When we think about the climate change. When we think about the rise of totalitarianism, the decline of democracy in many places, that everybody's got this base level of fear and anxiety, and people get overwhelmed by it, and then they look for strong man leaders, I think that explains why a lot of people—it's not rational anymore, it's just an emotional tribal identification. So if we can help people that may not necessarily have a diagnosis, but help everybody ... So I think that we need to go beyond the medicalization, and that the legalization, and legal access, is absolutely essential to achieve the kind of mass mental health and spiritualized humanity that we’re looking to have, that we think we need for us to survive and thrive as a species.
Doblin really hits all the key notes of a certain kind of 2023-vintage high-toned liberalism. There’s the therapizing (“everybody is traumatized”), the appeal to politically salient fears fears (climate change, decline of democracy), the implication that your ideological enemies are irrational (“it’s just an emotional tribal identification”). Later on he says his “new animating vision” is “a world of Net Zero trauma by 2070.” I mean, it’s just pitch-perfect.
At the same time, he’s clearly an old-school style hippy, or at least is happy to play one on TV. Throughout the conversation, Doblin talks about self-fulfillment — Maslow’s hierarchy makes an appearance! — with the implication being that psychedelics are necessary to create the kind of total global enlightenment that was all the rage in Manhattan parlors circa 1971.
But whatever his motivations, Doblin is extremely direct about his goal. He wants to legalize psychedelics, not just for a restricted group in serious need, but for everybody.
In this regard, he is simply following the playbook of “medical” marijuana. Does marijuana have medical applications? Sure, some.2 Was medical marijuana legalization always primarily a stalking horse for recreational legalization? Yes, aboslutely. And it was an effective one because it could use sympathetic figures—cancer patients, AIDS patients, etc.—as banner carriers for a broader agenda.
As above, so below. Heck, Rick Perry’s pitch is that we should legalize psychedelics because it will benefit veterans. Everyone loves veterans! But Doblin is very direct, and I appreciate that: the goal is to get everyone to take psychedelic drugs, because we all have trauma that needs expurgating.
In the context of prohibition, opponents often like to talk about the notion of “Baptists and Bootleggers.” Who favored liquor prohibition? Baptists, who believed it would achieve the goal of moral improvement, and Bootleggers, who would profit off of it. Here’s Bruce Yandle, who coined the phrase:
Here is the essence of the theory: durable social regulation evolves when it is demanded by both of two dis-tinctly different groups. "Baptists" point to the moral highground and give vital and vocal endorsement of laudable public benefits promised by a desired regulation. Baptists flourish when their moral message forms a visible founda-tion for political action. "Bootleggers" are much less visible but no less vital. Bootleggers, who expect to profit from thevery regulatory restrictions desired by Baptists, grease thepolitical machinery with some of their expected proceeds. They are simply in it for the money.
I think about this dynamic in the current push for legalization too, though. After all, what is Doblin except the Baptist par excellence?3 His is a moral crusade, animated by a salvific vision of a world restored to balance and order by mass dosing. And wherever there’s a baptist, wait for the bootleggers! They are no doubt coming: as Doblin observes, “we do not seem to have resistance from the pharmaceutical industry.” We saw what happened with the first great leap, ketamine: a boom in shady mills using aggressive social media tactics and an unsurprising wave in problem use.
Of course, folks like Doblin and Gillespie will retort that this is only bad insofar as the drugs being consumed are bad. Ketamine is addictive, but many psychedelics are not; the effective dose of psychedelics is so high that overdose is basically impossible. Isn’t this all harmless psychonaut-ery? To which my response is that it sure seems like psychedelic use can trigger psychosis and mania in people with genetic predisposition (and how do you know in advance if you have it?), and the incidence of flashbacks (“hallucinogen persisting perception disorder”) may be as high as 4%. Are these substances as dangerous as heroin? Probably not. Are they plenty dangerous, such that their legal sale would be bad for the general welfare? I suspect so!
At root, though, my concern is what I am sure is Doblin and Gillespie’s hope: that psychedelic legalization is part of the project of pushing more comprehensive legalization into the overton window. If you can buy marijuana, why not mushrooms? If you can buy mushrooms, why not DMT? If you can buy DMT, why not cocaine? If you can buy cocaine, why not heroin? It’s all natural medicine, after all…
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Ketamine is a dissociative, which is often grouped with the psychedelics, although you can quibble about it.
Though given his almost quaint, Bush-era fear of “fundamentalists,” he might bristle at that descriptor.