Medical Researchers Are Steps From Legalizing Ecstasy. Here's How They Did It.

Posted by Bill Kovski on

A half century after the psychedelic movement came to a screeching halt, MDMA scientists are making the most of a second chance.

In a new online feature, Mike Riggs looks at the decades-long effort to legalize MDMA and other psychedelic drugs for medical use:

In January 1967, roughly 20,000 young people gathered at Golden Gate Park for the Human Be-In, a kind of outdoor conference for hippie counterculture. The event introduced the word "psychedelic" to the American mainstream, and the psychedelic evangelist Timothy Leary to San Francisco.

California and Nevada had banned LSD a year earlier, following New York, which banned it in 1965. Leary, a psychologist who'd recently been canned from his faculty gig at Harvard for sharing psychedelic drugs with undergraduates, believed there was no longer any point in negotiating with the powers that be. His message was blunt: "Drop out of high school, drop out of college, drop out of graduate school."

The Man—mostly government, but also society and authority figures of all kinds—was attempting to eradicate psychedelic drugs and the liberation they bestowed. That required a proportionately rebellious response: "Turn on, tune in, drop out." Students around the country heard Leary's words, and many did as he exhorted. The Man heard him, too, and doubled down on its efforts to bury the psychedelic drug era under a mound of criminal sanctions and red tape. Within a few years, psychedelic drugs were completely regulated out of recreational settings, then therapeutic settings, and finally research settings.

Fifty years and a few months later, at a Marriott hotel 14 miles from Golden Gate Park, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) hosted nearly 3,000 researchers, students, and enthusiasts for Psychedelic Science 2017, a six-day conference on what's being done to turn illegal psychedelic drugs into legal pharmaceutical products. Once again, the avatars of psychedelic culture had gathered to compare notes, share their experiences, and talk strategy.

This time, the message was different: Stay in school. Apply for research grants. Design clinical trials. Show your work.Evangelize, yes, but with a new audience in mind—not the counterculture, but the Man himself.

"Regulators, governments, health economists, health systems, insurers, health-care professionals, and—most importantly—patients," said George Goldsmith, the former CEO of McKinsey & Company's TomorrowLab, and an advocate for the kind of therapeutic innovation psychedelic researchers are hoping to achieve. "That's the next community that actually needs to be engaged here."

Sitting onstage next to Goldsmith was Thomas Insel, a psychiatrist and former director of the National Institute of Mental Health. Insel, who's spent a lot of time in recent years bemoaning the paucity of effective psychiatric drugs, was blunter still. "I would encourage you to be more Catholic than the Pope. You've got to be more rigorous than the people working in the pharmaceutical industry studying more traditional compounds that aren't controlled [substances]." One adverse patient reaction for which clinical investigators were not prepared, he argued, could "poison the well."

"I know you don't want to hear that," he added. "But it's really easy to mess things up."Today's psychedelic drug community is fiercely committed to avoiding a repeat of the 1960s' culture wars, in no small part because their tie-dyed predecessors lost. Insel and Goldsmith, while not psychedelic researchers themselves, reflect the current movement's willingness to work with more staid actors in the field of medicine.


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