scholar Rick Doblin founded MAPS a year after the ban, in 1986, to research the clinical benefits of psychedelics and marijuana. While trippers generally remain discreet about their activities, especially of recreational use, MAPS has made a point of operating scrupulously above board. Under Doblin’s purview and guided by his Harvard University-honed expertise in public policy, the nonprofit has published journals, statistics, action studies and methodical protocols that slowly chipped away at some of the counterculture stigma attached to psychedelics.
The method took a few decades but seems to be paying off. To date, MAPS has raised more than $36 million, largely from individual donors and small foundations, to study cannabis and psychedelics and educate the people about their risks and benefits. The nonprofit celebrated another landmark victory this month when the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency approved a clinical trial of marijuana to treat PTSD. Seventy-six trauma-stricken military veterans will take part in the study, which marks the first time federal regulators officially allowed research meant to make smoked cannabis a legal prescription.
Silicon Valley Gives, the region’s annual 24-hour fundraising drive that took place last week, gave MAPS another big boost. Together, with money raised from its 30th anniversary gala in March and some 300 grassroots psychedelic dinners like the one hosted by Nadia and Dmitry last month, the organization has raised about $236,000 for its kilo, or 8,000 doses, of MDMA.
‘We’ve had to combat years of negative propaganda, negative science to prove that there are legitimate contexts for these type of substances,’ Burge says. ‘We’re always trying to bring more people into the fold by informing not just people who are already involved in psychedelic circles, but also the ones who may be on the fence or don’t know enough about it yet.’
A secondary aim of the dinner parties, he notes, is that they give people a chance to talk openly about their psychedelic experiences—or lack thereof. Some people at the San Jose event say they’ve never experienced anything more than a weed high. Still, they showed up out of curiosity, or because a friend came back from an ayahuasca ceremony or a psilocybin trip raving about the transformative effects.
‘I do have to say that it’s very daring to do psychedelics,’ Dmitry says, urging people to treat the psychoactive high as more than a gratuitous head change. ‘There’s a reason we’re all talking about it here.’
At the bonfire dinner, the conversation gets headier, more numinous as the hours pass and the sun dips below the horizon. Throughout the night some 20 or so people trickle in and out of the grassy yard, where windchimes lilt in the background and guests help themselves to fruit, dolmas, hummus, tofu pot pie and a Chicago-style deep-dish pizza. Five hours in, the financial adviser exits the circle to collapse in a hammock.
Save for the craft beer, no intoxicants are consumed, though they’re the main course of discussion. People read a ‘conversation menu’ prompt to open up about their most white-knuckling psychedelic trips. Dmitry recounts a time he puddled out on acid and jumped into what seemed like another dimension, a realm in some far-flung reach of the universe. When he came to, he says, he had stigmata-like gouges on his palms.
They discuss the Silicon Valley angle, namely the industry’s not-so-secret penchant for the molecular mind show of hallucinogenic drugs. Much has been made of Steve Jobs’ reverence for psychedelic enlightenment, but McKenna—whose name comes up a number of times during the dinner party—spent a lifetime studying the intersection of new technologies and ancient pagan customs.
In Food of the Gods, published in 1992, McKenna makes the iconoclastic case that psychedelics jumpstarted human advancement by giving our mushroom-eating forebearers a leveling-up from animal instinct to higher consciousness. In the 1990s, he popularized the idea of virtual reality and accurately predicted that the internet would galvanize psychedelic subcultures by providing a space to connect and organize.
‘Psychedelics are woven into the Silicon Valley ethos,’ remarks a dinner party guest who declined to share her name. ‘I want to take mushrooms or LSD to shift my perspective before tackling a new project.’
The conversation touches on how psychedelics exploded into American culture in the 1960s, and spawned a counter-culture inherently at odds with society. But a lot of those same people grew up and brought those sensibilities to the mainstream, ideas that manifest in academia, medicine and technology. Take Google’s DeepDream, one of the guests says. The artificial intelligence program used an algorithm to find and enhance psychedelic patterns in images.
‘That’s one more example of the interplay between technology and psychedelics,’ remarks one of the guests, an engineer at a local startup. Like virtual reality, he continues, a trip ‘isn’t real,’ but can transport a person and spark some lasting insight.
The university instructor who listened intently to Tiefer’s wild account of a mushroom high says psychedelics have far more applications than medicinal use. If used with intention, he says, they could provide novel answers to not only personal pain points, but also some of the most pressing political and environmental problems.
It’s a thesis similar to Becker’s, that the root of evil isn’t humanity’s animal nature, territorial violence or innate selfishness. Rather, it’s the death-denying impulse to establish some self-serving legacy to outlast us. In Becker’s words, ‘Our desire for the best is the cause of the worst.’ A recurring theme from the MAPS fundraising dinner was the power of enlightenment to veer us away from those destructive, if occasionally well-meaning, tendencies. For expediency’s sake, that may entail a chemical aide.
‘I think psychedelics are like a gateway to the mystical experience,’ says an engineering professor, who asked to withhold his name because he doesn’t want his employer to associate him with anything illegal. ‘They’re not the only way to get there. You could spend your whole lifetime getting there. But psychedelics are like a helicopter ride to the top of the mountain you could otherwise climb.’
Some people may prefer the slow, steady trek, he says. But why not hitch a ride up?
‘As long as you bring something back from it that’s healing or life-altering,’ he advises. ‘Otherwise you’re kind of wasting the experience.’