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Jewish psychedelics advocate working to turn drug into legal medicine

When Rick Doblin was in his early 20s, he had a dream in which he was escorted back in time to witness a Holocaust survivor’s narrow escape from the Nazis.

In his mind, Doblin traveled to Eastern Europe to witness thousands of Jews lined up alongside a mass grave as the gunners open fire, toppling the bodies into the earth. The man spends three days alive underground before emerging and fleeing to the woods, where he survives the war in hiding.

The man then tells Doblin that he survived this horror only to deliver a message that Doblin should devote his life to promoting psychedelics as a cure for human ills and an insurance policy against another Holocaust. Then he expires.

Doblin took the advice to heart. For much of the next four decades, he waged an often frustrating battle to get public health authorities to recognize the value of psychedelics, the perception-shifting compounds popularized in the 1960s that have been a source of both fear and fascination ever since.

“I’ve always felt that the response to the Holocaust is helping people realize our common humanity,” Doblin said. “And that there are many ways to do that, and psychedelic mystical experiences are one of the ways. And so I felt like what I’m doing is to try to prevent another Holocaust and that that’s the deepest motivation.”

In the United States, research on these chemicals has been banned since the 1960s because, in the government’s judgment, they have no recognized medical value and a high potential for abuse. But a growing body of research has shown their efficacy for a range of mental illnesses that have proven resistant to other treatments, including post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, depression and anxiety. Research underway at Johns Hopkins and New York University is also investigating whether psychedelics can be of use in a wider array of applications, including one study on whether the drugs can induce spiritual experiences among religious clergy.

Doblin has funded some of this research as the founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a nonprofit he runs from his home here in suburban Boston. And after years of effort and $100 million raised, he now stands on the cusp of a major victory.

In late October, Doblin received preliminary results from a MAPS-funded phase 3 study of the effects of MDMA — better known as the club drug Ecstasy — on PTSD. Phase 3 trials are typically the final hurdle before the Food and Drug Administration authorizes a drug for public use. Those preliminary results showed MDMA surpassed the FDA’s threshold for statistical significance in treating PTSD.

A formal scientific paper is due early next year and Doblin expects government authorization for prescription use will eventually follow. If it does, it would be the first time the federal government has ever approved a psychedelic to assist in psychotherapy.

“It’s enormously satisfying because it was something

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