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A Drug Against War

The militarization of Ecstasy

Looming on a cliffside in Big Sur, framed by the Pacific Ocean and California’s windy Highway 1, the Esalen Institute has long stood as the wooly nerve center of the philosophical, psychological, and pseudospiritual American tendency dubbed “the human potential movement.” Established in 1962 by two Stanford grads inspired by a lecture given by Aldous Huxley (on the subject, appropriately, of “human potentialities”), Esalen was pitched as a place where the latent gifts of humankind could be unearthed and explored.

Built on the site of hot springs, the institute was where tourists congregated in search of convalescence, physical reconstitution, and good old-fashioned R&R, named, natch, after a depopulated indigenous tribe. Across its expansive history, Esalen has played a key role in nurturing everything from gestalt therapy and the West Coast’s queer culture to the thawing of U.S.-Soviet relations and the development of massage therapy. Alan Watts led workshops there, as did Joseph Campbell and Joan Baez. And it was at Esalen in 1982 that Rick Doblin first encountered MDMA, best known as the popular club drug Ecstasy, or Molly, or the Hug Drug, or—if you’re a Kandi kid holdover with a pair of well-worn neon JNCOs—Disco Biscuits. It was the drug that would become both his obsession and his vocation.

Now seventy years old, Doblin has been working to get MDMA taken seriously for more than forty years—chiefly as the founder and former executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS. (MDMA is not, strictly speaking, a psychedelic. It is certainly not a “classical psychedelic”: a category of drugs that includes mescaline, psilocybin, LSD, and DMT. Some researchers and advocates prefer to identify MDMA as either an “empathogen,” meaning a therapeutic drug that augments feelings of empathy, or an “entactogen,” a term coined by pharmacologist David Nichols to mean “a touching within.” I will still refer to MDMA as a psychedelic, however imprecisely, if only because it helps situate the compound within a class of drugs currently being advanced in ongoing clinical studies as part of the “renaissance” in psychedelic pharmacology and culture.) But back in the early eighties, when the drug was still legal in the United States, and the Ecstasy-fueled rave culture was finding its tempo, Doblin wrote it off as insignificant. As a student at the New College of Florida, he had decamped to Big Sur for an extended workshop on “The Mystical Quest.” While at Esalen, Doblin glimpsed a group of people, sitting in a circle, chatting under the gentle sway of MDMA.

Then in his late twenties, Doblin was already a savvy veteran of the earlier psychedelic era, which prized more ego-shattering experiences. He initially saw MDMA as a mere “feel-good drug.” “You take 250 micrograms of LSD, and you can’t talk,” he recalls, Zooming from his Boston home. “So how profound could it be if they could talk? I dismissed it . . . But I like to say I was stupid enough to underestimate it, but smart enough to buy some.” Taking the drug with his partner at the time, Doblin found himself loosening up. “It was processing emotional information in a better way, a different way, than usual,” he says. “I was open, and honest, and curious. It was fantastic.”

The experience invested Doblin with a singular sense of purpose. Since its inception in 1986, MAPS has lobbied the DEA, funded studies, and, most recently, rebranded its for-profit arm as Lykos Therapeutics, tasked with allocating the capital necessary to commercialize a “new” pharmaceutical drug. The ethics of MAPS’s move into the space of Series A fundraising has raised some eyebrows among those who regard “psychedelic capitalism” as an oxymoron. A 2022 editorial in the American Medical Association’s psychiatry journal concluded that increased capital investment in psychedelic medicine has rendered the space “susceptible to an emerging conflict between entrepreneurial enthusiasm and scientific deliberation.” The psychedelic capitalists are regarded by skeptics as modern iterations of the alcoholic ad exec Don Draper in Mad Men, seen deep in meditation at an Esalen-ish retreat in the series finale: leveraging the warm-fuzzy feelings of generations of mind-expanding, human potential-nourishing apostles in order to sell the world a Coke. Or, in this case, a hug.

Doblin is of a genuinely cheery temperament. He has a wide, easy smile. And his commitment to psychedelic drug advocacy—a domain that has, until recently, borne precious little in terms of legal or financial avails—suggests a deep, saintly resolve and well-cultivated spirit of indefatigability. But when he starts describing capital allocation and the uneasy necessity of having to raise untold millions of dollars to advance MDMA therapy through various bureaucratic hurdles laid down by a consortium of three-letter government agencies, his tone shifts like a grade school teacher who’s had to explain long division over and over again. “When you think about the scale of the need,” Doblin told me in 2021, “and the amount of money it costs to do research, philanthropy is not going to get it done.”

Skirmishes about patents and psychedelic “IP” rage on, as the fortunes of LSD-biopharma startups fluctuate on the NASDAQ. Such conversations waffle between the vital and exasperating. But it is difficult to argue with the results. Clinical data show remission rates between 56 and 100 percent for post-traumatic stress disorder among patients clinically treated with MDMA, meaning that a majority no longer met the criteria for PTSD as outlined in the DSM-5.

Doblin had always had a sense that MDMA could be a powerful weapon, wielded against the war on drugs. This counteroffensive would prove, like the drug war, long, costly, and full of stymying logjams. But, as of this writing, the MAPS/Lykos MDMA therapy has been granted priority review by the Food and Drug Administration. This means that prescription MDMA could be commercially available as soon as mid-August 2024. “I never want to celebrate too soon,” Doblin laughs. “But I do think we’re in great shape!”

It’s a major victory in the war on the war on drugs. And it’s one that was accomplished—in a strange bit of irony, especially for a class of drugs that were popularized, and subsequently criminalized, because of their association with the antiwar movement of the 1960s and 1970s—with the considerable help of the military. Or at least its veterans, who often describe MDMA, in precisely martial language, as “the tip of the spear.”

The War on the War on Drugs

Ryan Roberts’s journey to MDMA began far away from scenic overlooks in Big Sur. It started with the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, during his first deployment as a Marines infantryman. Like many young people of his generation, Roberts enlisted at eighteen, in the days after 9/11, recruited by a Marine Corps officer who locked eyes with him while he was working at a pretzel kiosk in his local mall. He completed basic training, had his head shaved, and cultivated what he calls “the warrior mindset.” “The Marine Corps does a wonderful job preparing you for those scenarios,” he says. “You’re very, very locked in . . . It’s almost like you’re operating like a sociopath, in some ways. All those feelings of fear, and anxiety, are shut off.”

MDMA therapy risks seeming like just another feeble promise. But a big difference between MDMA and existing treatments—and this is key—is that it works.

What the Marines couldn’t train men like Ryan for is what he calls “the catastrophic loss of civilian life.” He remembers clearing a residential building and finding the body of a man in his late twenties reaching out to a woman whose own torso had been shredded by a heavy duty .50-caliber round. There was a fetus, still attached to the umbilical cord, laid across the floor a few feet away. “He died reaching for her,” Roberts says. There was another child—“probably six or seven years old”—in an adjacent room, wailing in anguish for hours.

Roberts and his fellow Marines cleared house after house, zipping civilian bodies into poncho liners that served as ad hoc body bags and stacking them into mass graves. Even before he returned from the war, in 2006, Roberts knew he wouldn’t just be able to settle back into civilian life. He had all the textbook symptoms of PTSD: agitation, irritability, hypervigilance, restless sleep, panic attacks, shame, and suicidality. Primarily he suffered from a profound sense of what is called “moral injury”: a feeling of having betrayed one’s own conscience.

“My moral compass fell off,” he says. “The connection between my heart and my mind was just severed, completely.” He recalls being at the birth of his first child and feeling like he was somewhere else entirely, totally dissociated from the basic reality in front of him. His wife kicked him out of the house. He made multiple attempts on his own life. Roberts tried the available therapies: talk, cognitive behavioral, prolonged exposure, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. He was prescribed SSRIs for depression and benzos for anxiety. He self-medicated with alcohol, sometimes drinking a fifth of whiskey just to still his mind long enough for a twenty-minute nap. Nothing worked. “It’s like getting out of prison,” Roberts says of his return to civilian life. “They give you a $40 voucher, and they give you a bus pass, and they say, go have a great life.

Such is the paradox of America’s warrior culture. On the one hand, the compulsive pageantry of the national anthem, parades, federal holidays, and targeted recruitment campaigns suggest a nation that glorifies and uplifts its military veterans. On the other, statistics accounting for rates of homelessness, PTSD, and suicide among veterans suggest a nation whose support rarely extends past a half-hearted “Thanks for your service.” In such a climate, MDMA therapy risks seeming like just another feeble promise. But a big difference between MDMA and existing treatments—and this is key—is that it works.

“MDMA was really effective,” says Roberts. “It was an experience of me sitting with me and showing myself love and acceptance. . . . I came out of the experience just glowing.” He goes on to describe his life and mental health in the wake of the treatment:

I’m joyful. I’m peaceful. I’m deeply connected to myself, my community. My work has purpose. Everything you could ask for in life, I feel like I have, and I feel like I deserve. And moral injury pushes you so far away from thinking you deserve anything. That’s why suicide happens. Because you believe you don’t even deserve the air that you’re breathing. To come full circle? To feel like I’m deeply connected and happy? I could never have never imagined it, not in a million years.

Like many until very recently, Roberts’s MDMA experience was facilitated in the underground—that is to say, illegally. In lieu of full institutional support from government and federal agencies, it’s where many seeking psychedelic therapy turn. And it’s where the protocols ironed out by MAPS, and similar aboveboard groups, were originally devised.

Specifying the Nonspecific

The modern history of MDMA is inseparable from the life of Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, a prodigious underground chemist who synthesized the drug in the mid-1970s and shared it with a group of likeminded comrades on his secluded laboratory-farm in the Bay Area. Shulgin’s lifelong partner Ann was a lay therapist and was convinced that the drug would have a monumental impact in the therapeutic landscape. “MDMA,” she has said, “allows insight without fear . . . You can explore your shadow self, your dark side.” She called it an “insight drug.”

Just as psychedelia and venture capital strike many as strange bedfellows, the axis of MDMA and military organizations can seem an odd alliance.

In the psychedelic underground, such molecules are often prized precisely for their ability to gin up reflective states. These drugs (and their respective experiences) are, to use a pharmacological term, “nonspecific.” Their ability to tweak emotional states, or the contours of workaday consciousness, often prove reward enough. That’s in the underground, anyway. In the greige world of clinics and pharmacies and DEA hearings and reams of FDA approval paperwork, these drugs must be made to seem not just relatively safe but broadly useful. So much of the work around relegitimating MDMA is public and PR-facing: fighting back against the more hysterical tropes that emerged when the drug was popularized in the all-night rave scene and undoing the nagging messaging of the drug war itself. “I grew up in the ‘just say no’ Reagan Era,” says Juliana Mercer, another Marine veteran who has spent her postwar years politicking for expanded MDMA access. “A lot of things we were told, by DARE, and because of the war on drugs, were not true. I had to educate myself about the truth.” Part of the public reeducation involves instrumentalizing these drugs toward something a little more, well, specific.

Early in his campaign, Rick Doblin realized a key application for MDMA’s calming, heart-expanding chemical profile: the treatment of PTSD in military veterans. Early research identified “postwar stress syndromes” as among the conditions that could be effectively treated with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. For Doblin, this application could prove (to use a hoarier military metaphor) a Trojan Horse, rendering the drug broadly sympathetic to the public. As Doblin describes it:

We had to do a real strategic analysis of which drug would make it through the system . . . It was really critical that we develop bipartisan support. We’ve managed to take the psychedelic renaissance out of the culture wars. And we’ve got support across the political spectrum. And that’s because of work with veterans.

As with most psychedelic therapies, a clinical MDMA session facilitates a “trip treatment.” That is to say: the drug is believed to work not only through its pure chemical interaction with the patient’s brain chemistry (as an antidepressant or antianxiety prescription might) but also by fostering a “non-ordinary” state of consciousness. In this state, a patient suffering from PTSD may find themselves emotionally destabilized, and able to confront triggering or traumatic material with the aid of a trained psychotherapist.

As MAPS’s own Manual for MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy in the Treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder describes it, “Participants are able to experience and express fear, anger, and grief as part of the therapeutic process with less likelihood of either feeling overwhelmed by these emotions or of avoiding them by emotional numbing.” In a controlled setting, many of the same boons that have drawn people to MDMA for decades—its ability to catalyze feelings of emotional openness and stir a profound, almost universalist, love—can be marshaled toward healing a bruised psyche.

In promoting these benefits, MAPS and other interested researchers first attracted military veterans to clinical trials (conducted under strict guidelines and circumventing the drug’s widespread illegality). Now, they’re working hand in glove with the United States Department of Veteran Affairs to help get the drug to veterans who need it. The 2024 National Defense Authorization Act also authorized research on psychedelic treatments, to be overseen by the Department of Defense. This brings psychedelic therapy explicitly under the auspices of U.S. government control, at a time when the mental health of veterans seems be at a crisis point.

More than thirty thousand U.S. service members and veterans who served in post-9/11 conflicts have died by suicide, veterans have a suicide rate one-and-a-half-times the national average, and annual veteran suicide figures in the United States rival the total casualties of the war on terror. “It’s pretty obvious that a solution that actually works is going to put a dent in veteran PTSD,” says Juliana Mercer. “And it’s going to help move the needle in the right direction in terms of veteran suicide.”

All this is extremely promising. But just as psychedelia and venture capital strike many as strange bedfellows, the axis of MDMA and military organizations can seem an odd alliance, particularly for anyone skeptical about the prospect of psychedelic, empathogenic, or otherwise “non-ordinary” states of consciousness dovetailing with the messy history of war-making. After all, the military and deep state’s own historical involvement with these drugs, and their own chemical potentialities, is messy, if not downright FUBAR.

Flogging Molly

The modern military interest in psychedelia, and the weaponization of altered states of consciousness, more or less begins in June of 1942, when British intelligence agents intercepted a Nazi communiqué requesting fifty grams of mescaline to be delivered to an occupied town in Ukraine for the purposes of interrogating downed Allied parachutists. By 1943, Nazi physicians operating in concentration camps were experimenting with mescaline in an effort to “eliminate the will” of prisoners. By 1947, the U.S. military had assumed the project of the conquered Nazis, conducting studies involving mescaline, LSD, and scopolamine. In the early days of the Cold War, the ostensible aim was to develop a kind of brainwashing technology, which could soften both soldiers and citizenry into pliant subjects.

The idea of totally eliminating all of the world’s trauma—in under fifty years!—seems a little loony.

The most expansive of these was Project MK Ultra, authorized in 1953, and overseen by CIA “poisoner in chief” Sidney Gottlieb, an outré chemist and spymaster who would regularly dose oblivious colleagues and dance a little self-satisfied jig as he watched them succumb to their hallucinatory reveries. MK Ultra unfolded over decades, drawing in and polluting medical hospitals, universities, brothels, and countless innocents in what is arguably America’s most expansive domestic torture program. It also claimed the life of a three-ton Asian elephant, Tusko, the beloved prize of the Oklahoma City Zoo, who was injected with a lethal amount of LSD (some 297 milligrams, equivalent to at least thirty-five hundred single-dose hits).

Despite its superficial chemical similarity to other mind-altering drugs, MDMA stands largely outside this shadowy history. Its limited use in military investigation and mental reprogramming may have something to do with the drug’s intrinsic chemical profile: feelings of euphoria, elation, contentment, and even love. In her recent history of MDMA, I Feel Love, author Rachel Nuwer quotes the eminent German psychotherapist and chemical historian Torsten Passie, who speculates on rumors that when German fighter pilots were dosed with the drug, the treatment never caught on: “If they feel full of love for their victims on the ground, they might not throw down the bombs!”

The architects of previous chemical warfare programs have essentially admitted that their programs didn’t amount to a hill of beans. A 1977 Senate hearing concluded that “the Agency itself acknowledged that these tests made little scientific sense. The agents doing the monitoring were not qualified scientific observers.” The recent interest in MDMA suggests that they may have been looking at the problem backwards. In its current application, MDMA might seem like a “brainwashing” drug of a different stripe: one that reprograms soldiers not for war but for surviving life after it, scrubbing a greasy conscience of the sins of moral injury. It stands to reason that such a powerful program could be ripe for the sort of misuse that has historically characterized military psychedelia.

Be All You Can Be Here Now

The idea of something like “battlefield psychedelia” is harrowing to many interested in the safe use of these compounds. It was recently reported that Ukrainian officials are in the final stages of approving a pilot project that will see frontline soldiers treated with MDMA and psilocybin; intel reveals that ibogaine, an experimental psychoactive drug derived from a root bark, is also being investigated by the Ukrainian military in order to address to problem of “battlefield burnout.” “This is a fucking horrible idea,” says MDMA historian Nuwer. “They’re putting a Band-Aid on their soldiers and sending them back out.” The Ukrainians seem aware of the slapdash nature of such applications. As the chair of the Ukrainian Psychedelic Research Association told one reporter: “We are in the middle of a huge war, so we kind of need people recovered. We don’t have the luxury to just go home and recover.” Back in the United States, Texas congressman Dan Crenshaw—himself a former Navy SEAL, who lost an eye during deployment and sports a signature tactical eyepatch—has pushed the bill that funds further research on MDMA and certain psychedelic compounds for active-duty military. As in the earlier era of government-rubber-stamped, white-lab-coat psychedelic research, there is a give-an-inch, take-a-mile mentality, which may see carefully designed protocols ditched for quicker fixes. The best practices of underground and clinical psychedelic therapy risk slipping into the SOP of military expediency.

The architects of previous chemical warfare programs have essentially admitted that their programs didn’t amount to a hill of beans.

Recently, Rick Doblin has come under fire from others in the community, following an address this past March on “The Future of Psychedelics” at Austin’s SXSW festival. It was reported that Doblin suggested that military recruits, who may suffer from existing trauma, be dosed with MDMA as part of their basic military training, “to make them less reactive, more able to handle whatever circumstances come their way.” The comments were received with condemnation from certain quarters of the psychedelic community. One researcher accused Doblin of “serving maintenance therapies to the imperial war machine.” Another publication summed up the talk with the sensational headline: “Building Better Killing Machines—With Ecstasy!” Doblin maintains that his remarks were misconstrued, and that the ultimate aim of these therapies—and of his life’s work—is nothing less than “peaceful coexistence, nationally and globally,” and a post-drug war, post-prohibition world.

But considering the state’s monstrously abusive interest in psychochemical experimentation, some suspicion is warranted. And given the demands of combat—its very character—why should they even want it? They are, after all, in business of making war, not love. “People are very malleable during, and immediately after, the experience,” says Marine vet Ryan Roberts of psychedelics. “And they could be influenced the other way. Like, they’re machines . . . It sounds evil. But there is that potential.” Drug use in the military is endemic—from a bracing belt of “liquid courage” to Britain’s World War I-era use of cocaine pills (sold under the name “Forced March”) to the widespread uptake of amphetamines, whether in World War II, the Persian Gulf, or the ongoing Russian assault on Ukraine. Such situations rarely account for long-term effects on soldiers’ mental or physical well-being, and it’s about as impossible to patrol the safe, sane use of these drugs in military contexts as it is in the civilian underground, where drugs have thrived and multiplied despite a well-funded, decades-long war against them.

In pursuit of a post-prohibition world, longtime stakeholders like Doblin are cleaving open a new front of battlefield psychedelia, where drugs like MDMA are employed to heal the gaping wounds of global conflict. He is spending his semi-retirement marshaling his energy toward what he calls the “globalization” of these therapies. The plan is to open access in refugee camps and war zones under MAPS’s nonprofit architecture. There are also plans to deploy MDMA in Israel, for use in group therapy sessions for people traumatized by the October 7 attacks. Doblin imagines a future—a near future—of thousands of psychedelic medicine clinics (offering everything from magic mushroom pills to 5-MeO-DMT, a potent and fast-acting kind of synthetic toad venom), and troops of trained therapists mobilized globally toward the elimination of human suffering. He imagines a world of “net-zero trauma,” achievable by 2070.

The idea of totally eliminating all of the world’s trauma—in under fifty years!—seems a little loony. (Imagine generalissimos in tie-dye headbands pushing little white doves across a map of the world with riding crops.) It’s the sort of wide-eyed overpromise that feels simultaneously consistent with woo-woo human potential workshops and Big Pharma brochures hyping hot new prescriptions. Even if MDMA alone is terrifically effective in reducing symptoms of PTSD, it’s not 100 percent effective. But in the shorter term, the benefits radiate far beyond clinics and therapists’ couches.

MDMA’s war on the war on the drugs—and that of psychedelic medicine writ large—is unique not only because the drugs seem to be winning but because the drugs are winning on their own terms. Moving MDMA from Schedule I (containing drugs with a perceived “high potential for abuse”) to Schedule III (“a moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence”) would see it filed alongside Tylenol with codeine. And when’s the last time you heard of someone getting pinched for holding a baggie of Tylenol with codeine? Recreational users will no longer be punished to the fullest extent of the law for popping their pill of choice and twisting their melon to “Voodoo Ray.”

Ex-Marines like Juliana Mercer and Ryan Roberts are thus proving the tip of the spear on another front. The wonderful indications in the treatment of PTSD in military veterans have also undermined the reigning rhetoric of the war on drugs, calling attention to its most galling hypocrisies. They’ve stirred deeper conversations about the efficacy, and absurdity, of a nation whose geopolitical ambitions are enforced through a grinding forever war. However uneasy, there seems to be a détente—even a synthesis, in chemical terms—between the far-out countercultural fantasies of Esalen graduates and the more hard-nosed veterans teeming in VA hospitals. A seasoned hippie sharing a proverbial handshake with Dan Crenshaw may well give many counterculturists the creeps, but the rewards are, fingers crossed, worthwhile.

Psychedelic and empathogenic compounds are prized for their ability to foster what is sometimes called “self-transcendence,” or a “quantum shift” in the understanding of the self. For Roberts, the drugs’ effect is even simpler, if no less profound. MDMA worked wonders in helping him recover a better version of himself: the eighteen-year-old kid folding soft pretzels at the mall, before being targeted, recruited, and trained into an unfeeling automaton. “Not everybody has had the opportunity to heal in the way that I have,” he says. As for any worry that the MDMA could lead him to reignite his state-sponsored sociopathy, he is steadfast in his refusal. “Participating in the military-industrial complex? No. Absolutely not.”