When You Need Money for Prescription Psychedelics, Burning Man Is Your Destination
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- One evening last August, Rick Doblin pedaled a borrowed bicycle across the baked earth playa of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, site of the annual Burning Man festival. Doblin, who’s 65 and has graying, slightly wild, curly hair, was dressed sensibly for the occasion in khaki cargo shorts and green eyeshadow. Ignoring swerving cyclists, stoned pedestrians, and tinny electronic dance music, he rode past a giant wheeled schooner with revelers splayed across its decks. Doblin was on a mission: to track down Sergey Brin and talk about drugs.
This wasn’t quite as quixotic as it might sound. Doblin, the founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), is the world’s leading advocate for the medical use of methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA). He first got attention for his activism in the 1980s when he unsuccessfully petitioned the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to stop it from criminalizing MDMA, and since then he’s helped move the cause closer to the mainstream. Last year a widely cited study that MAPS funded showed doses of MDMA alleviated post-traumatic stress symptoms in a small group of first responders and veterans. Doblin’s pioneering work was also recognized in Michael Pollan’s recent best-seller, How to Change Your Mind.
Doblin is acquainted with Brin, the co-founder of Alphabet Inc. Like so many rich Silicon Valley types, Brin is a regular at Burning Man, the weeklong bacchanal in the Nevada desert that will begin again in late August. Several months before the 2018 Burn, Doblin had cornered Brin at a gathering at Fly Ranch, a nearby property the festival’s organizers own, and talked up the pharmaceutical potential of mushrooms and ketamine. Now, at the festival itself, he had an ideal opportunity to follow up, and he invited two Bloomberg Businessweek reporters along for the ride.
Doblin first camped in Black Rock City—the made-up town where the festival is held—for fun in 2003. But as the tech economy minted millionaires and billionaires, and as rich people began to discuss drug use more openly, he began to look at Burning Man differently. Techies “are more likely to challenge the status quo in everything they do,” he said. “I started realizing this could be a good fundraising tool.”
Although ostensibly a fringe art festival, Burning Man is about sex and recreational drugs for a large number of festivalgoers. (Nor is the festival really fringe anymore. Tickets, $425 each plus $100 for parking, sold out within minutes when they went on sale in April.) Once on the playa, Burners tend to spend hours discussing the high they’re on, or have been on, or plan to be on. Doblin, however, typically doesn’t indulge in psychedelics when he’s on festival grounds. Burning Man is one of his most important workweeks of the year, a rare gathering of super rich drug enthusiasts. So he stays sharp, hoping to recruit new MAPS donors and schmooze old ones. They include several early Facebook Inc. employees, as well as Andrew Mason (co-founder of Groupon), Britt Selvitelle (a former senior Twitter executive), and Cyan Banister (a partner at Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund).
The current destination for most of the money MAPS raises is drug trials involving MDMA, which is now colloquially called molly or ecstasy and was known as Adam when Doblin took it for the first time in 1982. He was with his girlfriend, having just returned from the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, Calif., as part of a self-directed undergraduate project at New College of Florida, the famously chill institution of higher learning. “I was just shocked at how profound it was, how deep it was,” Doblin says. Compared with classic psychedelics, which had been quietly used by some therapists for decades, “it was easier to integrate and to learn from it.” Shortly afterward, when helping a friend’s girlfriend work through a traumatic experience with the help of MDMA, Doblin saw its potential to treat PTSD. That led to his unsuccessful DEA challenge and the founding of MAPS. Along the way he also earned a doctorate in public policy from Harvard Kennedy School.
Although Doblin endorses the use of other psychedelics and marijuana, he’s especially enthusiastic about the therapeutic potential of MDMA. Unlike mushrooms and LSD, which the government made illegal during the hippie heyday, MDMA carries little countercultural baggage and was outlawed in the U.S. only in 1985 amid the Reagan-era drug panic. In 1994 and 1995, Doblin helped fund a small MDMA Phase I drug trial at the University of California at Los Angeles. (Phase I trials evaluate the safety but not the efficacy of a proposed therapy in humans.) After that study and several others showed it was safe, MAPS started Phase II studies in 2000 to ask whether the drug actually worked to treat PTSD. In a series of six small MAPS-funded studies, subjects suffering from PTSD took ecstasy and underwent traditional talk therapy. An analysis of all six Phase II trials published in May found that more than half of participants who received MDMA no longer met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD. (In the control group, about a quarter saw the same result.)
By the time the Phase II studies started, Doblin’s circle of supporters included Ashawna Hailey, the co-founder of Meta Software. When Hailey died in 2011, she left MAPS $5.5 million, its single biggest donation to date. The windfall focused Doblin. “He had been saying for years, ‘We are about five years and $10 million away from having the FDA legalize MDMA,’ ” says John Gilmore, an early Sun Microsystems Inc. employee who co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a free-speech nonprofit, and who’s served on the MAPS board since 2001. Gilmore, Doblin, and the rest of the board voted to set aside most of the Hailey bequest for Phase III trials, which are now testing whether MDMA is better than other drugs at treating PTSD. Those trials require large numbers of patients and typically cost exponentially more than Phase II trials.
In 2017 the Food and Drug Administration approved MAPS’s request to move on to Phase III MDMA research and granted the treatment breakthrough therapy status, a designation that allows promising treatments for serious diseases to move more quickly than normal through the regulatory process. If all goes well, Doblin says, MDMA is on track to be legalized for medicinal use by 2021. But first, he has to pay for those trials, which he now says will cost about $34 million.
An irony that creates challenges for pro-psychedelic lobbying at the preeminent event for taking psychedelics is that drug use is officially forbidden at Burning Man. The festival takes place on federal land, and agents from the Bureau of Land Management roam the playa busting anyone who consumes openly. “We’re not a drug culture,” says Burning Man Chief Executive Officer Marian Goodell, who says the event is about experiencing art and forming relationships.
So Doblin was delighted when he arrived at the festival last summer and found that the Zendo Project—a MAPS-funded nonprofit with a staff of seven whose mission is to help the drug-curious avoid bad trips—was mentioned on the front of the festival’s information pamphlet. In previous years, Zendo’s facilities had been assigned to the outskirts of Black Rock City. But in 2018 it was granted a spot on the Esplanade, the festival artery that runs from Center Camp and encircles the Man, the wooden effigy that burns at the end of the event each year.
Doblin had planned to fly in on Burner Express, a charter air service that runs from Reno to a temporary airstrip at the festival site. But he’d missed his flight and had to catch a ride on the first Monday of the festival with the two Businessweek reporters in their rented minivan. Once he arrived, he headed straight to his home base for the week: an air-conditioned tent at Foam Against the Machine, a camp run by his friend David Bronner, the soap mogul.
Bronner is an easygoing eccentric, a long-haired 46-year-old Southern Californian prone to the same sort of stream-of-consciousness ramblings that appear on the pseudo-mystical soap bottles that Dr. Bronner’s sells. He said he thinks of Doblin as Obi-Wan Kenobi, the knight from the Star Wars movies who holds Jedi powers, someone who’s “able to work on the alliances and the connections” but can get tough when necessary. “Sometimes you gotta litigate, man,” he said. Bronner first bonded with Doblin in the early 2000s over battles with the DEA, when Bronner was fighting to legalize hemp, which is used in his soap, and Doblin was arguing in favor of medical marijuana. Bronner, who’s pledged $5 million to MAPS over five years, sits on its board, along with Gilmore and Joby Pritzker, of the Chicago hotelier family.
Bronner also sponsored Doblin’s visit to Burning Man, allowing him to focus on cultivating donors. Many of Doblin’s backers stay at the nearby Camp Om Skillet, where Doblin once met Dustin Moskovitz, Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard roommate and one of the first Facebook employees. Moskovitz and his wife, Cari Tuna, have promised to give MAPS $2.5 million. “One of their friends donated, invited me to come visit with them,” Doblin recalls. “That was lightning striking.” Om Skillet is where Doblin got the suggestion to connect with another early Facebook employee, Justin Rosenstein, who became a donor. Through Rosenstein, he became friendly with Joe Green, the co-founder and former president of Zuckerberg’s political organization, FWD.us. In 2017, Green, who’s now president of the nonprofit Psychedelic Science Funders Collaborative, camped near Doblin at Foam Against the Machine. He now serves as a sort of consigliere to Doblin, connecting him with sympathetic techies.
These donors all declined to comment about their support for MAPS’s research. Some of them also complained to Doblin about inviting the reporters to spend the week at the Foam site. Right before the festival, Doblin, with a pained tone in his voice, asked Businessweek to camp elsewhere. “We’ve got this conservative element, surprising to say, at Burning Man and in our community,” he offered by way of apology.
Donor names appear in MAPS financial documents, and Doblin strongly discourages anonymous donations on the grounds that part of the organization’s mission is to destigmatize the use of psychedelics. “It looks so fishy, these anonymous donations,” he says. But he makes exceptions if the checks are big enough. Doblin collected a number of anonymous donations from wealthy techies after giving a TED Talk in April. And in late 2017 and early 2018, a mysterious cryptocurrency magnate known as Pine gave MAPS $5.2 million in Bitcoin. In an emailed interview with Forbes, Pine said his use of ketamine to treat his borderline personality disorder led him to believe that MDMA could be highly effective against PTSD. “I’ve personally experienced an incredible benefit and know it works,” he told the magazine.
Doblin started his search for Brin on his second night on the playa, which began with an early evening party at First Camp, the home base for Burning Man’s organizers and a popular spot for VIPs. He parked his bike behind a makeshift fence, then made his way to the entrance, where a man in a top hat checked his name against a list and waved him in. Doblin’s relatively low-key look contrasted with the fantastically attired guests. Many of the women, including Burning Man CEO Goodell, wore floor-length gowns. Everyone but Doblin seemed to be drinking tequila.
Doblin saw Goodell and thanked her for the mention of Zendo in the pamphlet. He met movie director Darren Aronofsky and said hello to the anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist, who wore a striped caftan. Norquist and Doblin go back more than a decade: In 2005, Norquist wrote a letter to the DEA in support of MAPS’s position that a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst be allowed to grow marijuana for medical research. (A Boston federal appeals court sided with the DEA’s rejection in 2013.) Doblin also chatted with Terry Gross—not the radio host, but a powerful Bay Area media lawyer known on the playa simply as Lightning. Lightning told Doblin that Brin wouldn’t arrive until the following day.
After closing down the First Camp party around 9 p.m., Doblin moved on to the Galactic Jungle camp at the invitation of friend Florencia Bollini, an executive coach. She’d told Doblin that Guy Laliberté, the Cirque du Soleil founder, who’d be DJing that night, was sympathetic to the goals of MAPS. Plus, Uber Technologies Inc. co-founder Garrett Camp might be there. But Doblin missed Laliberté by minutes and never found Camp. Eventually, Doblin pedaled off. He led the two reporters onto a platform encircling the Man and started telling a story about how years earlier he almost landed a donation from Steve Jobs. Rejection doesn’t generally dissuade Doblin, though that doesn’t mean setbacks don’t hurt. “I’m a f---up who keeps trying,” he said with a wry laugh.
It was late, and as Doblin took in the scene, a man suddenly attempted to throw himself over a wall and off the platform onto a courtyard two stories below. “It’s a trick! It’s a trick!” the man shouted. Others ran over and grabbed him, pulling him back, and then when he broke free and again tried to throw himself over, they pinned him to the ground. “Maybe they’ll take him to Zendo,” Doblin said. He walked down, found his bike, and pedaled back to Foam Against the Machine. There he found Green, plus a well-known business leader from Boston and an Israeli billionaire who recently started giving to MAPS. Doblin and Green stayed up until 5 a.m. planning MAPS’s fundraising strategy for clinical trials in Europe.
During the festival, Doblin also helped guide a Burner, a U.S. military veteran and former police officer suffering from PTSD, through an MDMA session. Although Doblin isn’t a licensed therapist, the encounter had the feel of therapy. Doblin sat in a tepee with the veteran, whom he’d met on the playa. The veteran took a 125-milligram dose of MDMA, plus a smaller top-up two hours later. Recumbent, eye-masked, and alternating between periods of silence and chattiness, he talked about some of his more difficult experiences. Doblin listened and asked questions. He followed up with the man after a few weeks and learned that he was feeling better and looking into getting professional therapy.
“There was a point where this person was able to breathe more fully than in many, many years,” Doblin said, referring to the tepee session. “It’s not a one-dose miracle cure, but to see someone start in a puddle of tears and go to having hope was profoundly inspiring.”
On his third day at Burning Man, Doblin—dressed in a gold robe, copper loincloth, and Roman-style crown—climbed up some scaffolding and prepared to put on a show for a bunch of Burners, including, of course, potential MAPS donors. The makeshift tower sat above a gigantic Plexiglas-encased group shower at the Bronner camp. Technically an art installation—to avoid violating local bathhouse laws—the exhibitionist locker room was one of the only places on the playa to get clean. Doblin was the master of ceremonies at the shower opening.
While he looked on, robot-costumed dancers gyrated. Other performers, clad in feathers, removed the robots’ costumes and steered them to the Plexiglas blocks. After being sprayed with water and soapy foam, the former robots emerged, human. Then Doblin offered a blessing for love and psychedelics. “I foam, therefore I am,” he intoned, arms lifted over the crowd. Crowds of Burners, including Green and other supporters, entered the blocks, several dozen at a time, most naked. Many raised their hands and hooted as the playa’s grime ran off them. A DJ on a raised platform to the side played the James Taylor song Shower the People.
Doblin laughed and bobbed to the music, maneuvering hoses of foam and water from his perch above. He’d spend more than two hours there. Bronner accompanied him, dressed as a sort of jungle wizard, a stuffed-animal tiger affixed to his headdress. When Doblin spotted Eric Vermetten, a clinical psychiatrist and researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands, whom he’d invited to Burning Man, he gave him an extra dousing.
Doblin never met Brin at the festival. But at one point, Lauren Sherman dropped by Foam Against the Machine. The daughter of pharmaceutical billionaire parents who were murdered in Toronto last year, she’d recently donated $100,000 to MAPS. It was a small victory in the scheme of things, but Doblin was ebullient. “Twenty-six point nine,” Doblin said, referring to the total sum—in millions of dollars—that MAPS had raised until that point for Phase III trials. “Now we’re 27. We’re up to 27!”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Max Chafkin at firstname.lastname@example.org, Jillian Goodman
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