(Interviewing the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies has been a dream of mine for years. I’m honored to present this conversation with their Director of Communications & Marketing Brad Burge. Not only does he give us an update on the SIX (6!) Phase II clinical trials of MDMA for PTSD, but he also shares totally new developments & tips on how to talk about this stuff for people who don’t quite dig yet. And a couple of his favorite tunes to boot!)
~Interview By Terry Gotham
1. How was 2015 for MAPS? Any good news from the front to share?
Just a little.
I can say without hesitation that 2015 was our busiest, most exciting year yet. This year (2016) we celebrate MAPS’ 30th anniversary, and all that we’ve accomplished in those three decades. Our Phase 2 clinical trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are now nearly complete, and this year we’ll be meeting with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to plan the much larger Phase 3 trials needed to make MDMA a legal prescription medicine, approved for use in conjunction with psychotherapy to treat PTSD. We are on track for FDA approval as soon as 2021.
As one of the first steps to getting this first approval, in February 2015, we announced the formation of the MAPS Public Benefit Corporation (MPBC), a new wholly owned subsidiary of MAPS which will serve as a vehicle for conducting MAPS’ research, and for balancing social benefits with income from the legal prescription sale of MDMA, other psychedelics, and marijuana. We also initiated the purchase of one kilogram of pharmaceutical grade MDMA manufactured under current Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) to be used in our Phase 3 trials. This batch of MDMA will cost us approximately $400,000, which we are seeking to raise this year through the Global Psychedelic Dinners and 30th Anniversary Banquet in Oakland, Calif.
Another major 2015 success is our Canadian Phase 2 study of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD, which finally started after eight years of effort. This study has already completed treatments as of early 2016, and has been the first clinical psychedelic therapy trial in Canada in over 40 years. In 2015, we also completed and fully funded our two largest Phase 2 clinical trials, one in South Carolina primarily in U.S. military veterans, and one in Colorado primarily in female survivors of sexual assault and abuse.
The scientific and professional community is taking notice, with our first Phase 2 pilot study winning the Journal of Psychopharmacology award for being the journal’s most cited paper of 2011. In May 2015, two MAPS-sponsored researchers, Dr. Michael Mithoefer and Dr. Charlie Grob, spoke at the prestigious American Psychiatric Association conference in Toronto, Canada, and in October I had the opportunity to attend the Drogas, Política y Cultura conference in Guadalajara, Mexico, to give the first-ever presentation about MAPS’ work in Spanish and in Latin America.
In addition to our PTSD research taking off, we also continued our additional clinical trials using MDMA to facilitate therapy for other conditions. This year, our study of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for anxiety associated with life-threatening illness was approved and initiated in Marin, Calif., as the first clinical trial of this treatment. Our Los Angeles, Calif., study of MDMA-assisted therapy for social anxiety in autistic adults also continued enrolling and treating participants, and will conclude this year.
For our marijuana research, in December 2014, MAPS received our first-ever government grant of $2.1 million from the state of Colorado for our upcoming study of smoked marijuana for symptoms of PTSD in U.S. veterans, which we expect to begin in the next few months. Fantastically, in June, the Obama administration announced its historic decision to eliminate the Public Health Service (PHS) review process for marijuana research. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) formally eliminated the redundant review, acknowledging that “HHS is aware that this committee review is perceived to be an obstacle to non-federally funded research…The department expects the action announced will help facilitate further research.” Now, researchers with Food and Drug Administration (FDA) clearance can request marijuana directly from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) without the additional, obstructive PHS review process.
Public support for our work is also growing in step with the research. In February 2015, the news website reddit awarded $82,765.95 each to MAPS and nine other non-profits chosen by the reddit community. MAPS was ranked #6 out of the top 10 non-profit organizations, chosen from over 8,000 nominees. MAPS was also featured prominently in Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s “WEED 3” documentary, and we were on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, The New Yorker, and lots of other international news sources. Plus, in December we launched a brand new website that is faster, cleaner, and optimized for both desktop and mobile browsers, giving us a strong digital foothold on 2016.
Last but not at all least, in 2015, our crowdfunding campaign raised over $69,000 for our Zendo Project psychedelic harm reduction services, vastly exceeding our $50,000 goal and helping us significantly expand these services at Burning Man and other festivals around the world.
2. Did you become involved with Burning Man or MAPS first?
I got involved with MAPS first, as an intern in 2009. I was still in graduate school getting my Master’s in Communication and Science Studies from U.C. San Diego, with a focus on the history of psychopharmacology and the cultural transformation of psychedelics and marijuana from illicit drugs to legitimate medicines. I reached out to MAPS when I learned about what Rick Doblin and others had been doing since 1986, and worked as an intern in the Santa Cruz over two years. I got involved with the Burning Man community in part through my MAPS colleagues and friends, and the annual event quickly became a powerful source of inspiration and connection for me. I’ve had the great fortune and pleasure to work with the Zendo Project—MAPS’ psychedelic harm reduction service—at Burning Man in 2012 and 2013, and those years I also worked on Fractal Planet, the big visionary art and music camp. Last year, I got to be on playa for more than two weeks on the build crew for the Full Circle Tea House, a wonderful camp providing 24-hour tea, plus shade and a safe space to rest for Burning Man participants.
3. Some people have already started attempting to provide “MDMA therapy” without professional/legal help. Do you have anything to say to those taking things into their own hands, without the proper medical supervision?
Yes, therapists have been using MDMA to assist therapy ever since the compound was rediscovered by Sasha Shulgin in the late 1970s. Once MDMA was criminalized in 1985, a lot of those therapists stopped using it, though quite a few kept using it illegally, despite the fact that it meant taking on significant legal and professional risk. That underground community still exists today, though according to experts not in any formal way. Many of these underground therapists know what they are doing, and the risk is minimal, but many also do not. In addition to potentially lacking medical supervision, the other major risk with pursuing MDMA or other forms of psychedelic therapy illegally is that you never know what you’re taking—as long as the drugs are illegal, there is no mechanism of accountability in place that would ensure purity. Of course, using MDMA in any form of supportive setting is less risky than using MDMA in an uncontrolled, dangerous, or unpredictable environment such as a rave or club.
4. Does MAPS work closely with The Zendo Project, or are they given a fair bit of autonomy?
The Zendo Project is entirely a project of MAPS. Our psychedelic harm reduction work is an important part of our mission to shift public perception about psychedelics by creating a viable alternative to law enforcement and hospitalization. The Zendo Project does have its own staff, including Zendo Project Director Linnae Ponté, and a wide network of volunteers, all under the MAPS organization.
5. What can people do to help MAPS achieve their goals, besides donating & sharing info on social networks of course?
Well, people can donate and share information from maps.org on their social networks! But really, there’s a lot more people can do. The best first step for people who want to stay connected is to sign up for our email newsletter (maps.org/newsletter). That’s the first place we’ll announce new opportunities to get involved, support our work, accelerate the development of psychedelic medicines, participate in research, and learn about upcoming events. We’re always working to create more ways for people to connect and learn.
Right now we are most excited about our Global Psychedelic Dinners in April, and our 30th Anniversary Banquet and Celebration on April 17 in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Global Psychedelic Dinners will give all our supporters around the world a chance to gather your community, share your psychedelic experiences, and help raise $100,000 towards MAPS’ purchase of pharmaceutical grade MDMA for our Phase 3 trials. Everyone who hosts or attends the dinners will create their own online fundraising page so they can ask their friends, family, and colleagues to sponsor their participation and help make MDMA a legal medicine. Stay tuned for announcements and instructions in our email newsletter!
6. What is the most frustrating thing about communicating the MAPS message?
Communicating about our work is always a challenge. The more successful we are, the more work we have to do as our job keeps getting bigger, with more and more at stake. What keeps it from being frustrating is our continued success, and our continually expanding resources thanks to the support of our donors, staff, and volunteers. That’s the most challenging thing about our work: We have a big job to do as we legitimize psychedelic medicines and states of mind, so we are always seeking more financial resources, reaching new people, and opening up new opportunities. Time and again, our community has been there to support us as we take the next steps into the new psychedelic culture.
Another major challenge in my work is balancing the conversation when there are so many delicate aspects. We’re speaking with the mainstream public through major media and social media, while still acknowledging the spirt of the global community of people who believe for personal reasons in the beneficial potentials of psychedelics. Yet that’s also the most fun for me—speaking many different languages of truth, in order to create opportunities for more truths to be heard.
7. What is the best part about working with MAPS?
My favorite part of working with MAPS is getting to collaborate on a daily basis with a dedicated, constantly growing, compassionate team of people whose primary interests are healing people, pioneering research, honest education, and transforming medicine from the inside out. Personally, I deeply enjoy bringing the psychedelic values of interconnectedness, groundedness, and transparency into legitimate mainstream medicine, science, religion, and culture.
It’s simply fun to be working at the intersection of lots of different ways of seeing the world, and vanquishing fear. Every day I get to find a new way to introduce people to a topic that has been heavily stigmatized. In a way, we’re creating a safe space for altered states of consciousness and psychedelic healing through language (like “psychedelic therapy” as a search term), symbol (like the MAPS hands logo with its themes of unity and support), and action (like the upcoming Global Psychedelic Dinners this April) in the media and public culture. MAPS is at the center of a large and growing network of people who are changing the world.
8. After MDMA, what’s next?
We currently anticipate that MDMA will be approved as a prescription medicine for use with psychotherapy for PTSD by 2021. Once that’s approved, we’ll use the income from legal sales of MDMA and the training of MDMA therapists to continue developing MDMA-assisted therapy into a treatment for other conditions besides PTSD, especially anxiety-related conditions such as anxiety associated with life-threatening illness and hospice care, addiction, social anxiety, and other illnesses. We’d also like to do more LSD research, especially LSD-assisted psychotherapy for anxiety, or microdose LSD for depression, or LSD for enhancing creativity. Once psychedelics are approved for specific medical uses, we’re hopeful that it will be easier to gain approval to study their other uses.
9. If there was one thing you could tell to party people, burners and club kids about psychedelics & other recreational drugs, what would it be?
Psychedelics are not inherently recreational drugs, nor are they inherently therapeutic. Their risks and benefits come largely from how you choose to use them. Do your research, know your source, and if you can think of any reason why you shouldn’t take the drug, trust that instinct and don’t do it.
10. For everyone “fighting the war” on Facebook/Twitter & at the dinner table when it comes to legitimate usages for the psychedelics classified as Schedule I, any tips on how to convince the friends and family members who may be on the fence?
My #1 piece of advice is to focus on the research. Don’t exaggerate the benefits. Acknowledge the risks. Share personal stories, when you’re comfortable doing so. Remember that resistance to new ideas is the result of fear, which can’t be ignored. It’s important to be compassionate with people who have been conditioned to fear psychedelics, altered states of consciousness, and to blindly support the war on drugs. The war on drugs is a fear-based reaction, so in your conversations with people who may be on the fence, remember that they’re afraid, and be patient with them. It’s amazing how quickly a little bit of patience and compassion can turn our strongest opponents into our greatest allies.