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LSD, magic mushrooms, and “Molly”: Not words that come to mind for most people when they think of serious medical research.
And yet researchers into post-traumatic stress disorder and conditions like depression are doing exactly that for the first time in decades –- with an Internet-age twist. With traditional funding scarce, some researchers are turning to crowdfunding sites like Indiegogo to raise cash for their studies. It's a strategy that could revive their work examining the positive psychic potential of hallucinogens, a field that has been on life support since the 1970s.
“It’s probably the best time in history to be doing psychedelic research,” Brad Burge, director of communications for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), told NBC News.
MAPS is a non-profit that raises funds for researchers looking into the medical benefits of psychedelics and marijuana. In the past, with no government funds available, the organization had to rely on a few wealthy donors to keep studies afloat. Now it has run three successful Indiegogo campaigns — in which ordinary people give small or large donations in exchange for various rewards — including one effort that netted more than $130,000.
Some donors in that last campaign were rewarded with paintings done by Nicholas Blackston. He isn't a famous artist. He was a Marine who served near Ramadi, Iraq, and his artwork was inspired by his psychotherapy treatments with MDMA — the active ingredient in "Molly."
A soldier turns to MDMA
"There is nothing that can burn away the all things you see and witness in war," Blackston, 29, told NBC News. "I still have issues with anxiety and depression, but I'm no longer tormented by the nightmares."
When Blackston came back from his second tour in Iraq, years of taking prescription drugs like Zoloft and traditional therapy weren't enough to keep the panic attacks away. In 2011, he decided to become a participant in a study on the effects of MDMA on PTSD. He had never tried the drug, but became curious about its medical potential after seeing a TV news story about it.
He underwent six treatments from 2011 to 2012 in a lab run by psychiatrist Michael Mithoefer and his wife, Annie, a psychiatric nurse, in Charleston, South Carolina.
Although the treatments are over, he told NBC News that the positive effects of the therapy have lingered on. Blackston still remembers when his Humvee was attacked near Ramadi. He was the machine gunner. The driver died, and Blackston used to feel paralyzed about not being able to save his fellow soldier.
"I had that weighing on my mind for the longest time, the guilt that he got hit," he told NBC News. The MDMA, he said, allowed him to talk with a therapist about what he experienced in Iraq without being overcome with fear or anxiety.
"It was this big forgiving moment and I no longer blamed myself," he said.
Blackston now lives in Paducah, Kentucky, with his wife, Beverlee, and two-month-old daughter.
He lent his paintings and appeared in a video supporting a 2014 campaign to keep the Charleston study going and fund another study in Boulder, Colorado.
"It’s really cool to see people support these causes," Blackston said.
Crowdfunding takes off
MAPS hopes to fund even more studies after winning $82,000 from Reddit users, who in 2015 voted it one of their top 10 favorite charities. (MAPS came in sixth, one spot above NPR).
Burge said that MAPS plans to continue using Indiegogo to gather funds, and aims to break its old record and raise more than $200,000 for research.
On Walacea, a London-based crowdfunding site for scientific projects, a LSD brain imaging study has raised nearly $70,000 — way ahead of its original goal of around $37,000. Sympathetic donors still have until April 18 to donate to the cause.
"Nobody has been investigating these drugs since the invention of brain imaging technology," Amanda Feilding, director of the Beckley Foundation, which ran the Walacea crowdfunding campaign, told NBC News.
"For those of us who are doing this research, it’s like being in a wonderful orchard filled with low-hanging fruit, because nobody has explored these areas."
The ghost of Timothy Leary
Crowdfunding would not be necessary if drugs like LSD and MDMA weren't Schedule 1 narcotics.
In the 1960s, controversial Harvard researcher and psychedelic drug advocate Timothy Leary was telling young people to, "Turn on, tune in, drop out." By 1970, President Richard Nixon had signed the Controlled Substances Act, which deemed that many of the drugs popular with the counter-culture movement had "no currently accepted medical treatment use" in the United States.
That designation pretty much killed their use in medical research in the 1970s and 1980s.
"The ghost of Timothy Leary, while not as prominent as it once was, still lurks," Charles Grob, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, told NBC News.
For the most part, he said, funding in the U.S. now comes from two groups: MAPS and the Heffter Research Institute, both of whom have traditionally relied on donations from a small number of wealthy individuals.
Social stigma and regulatory hurdles scare many large research foundations and institutions away, he said.
"Several big foundations are interested in the research, but don’t want to fund it because they are frightened of what they will look like," Feilding said.
Not only is funding hard to come by, but it’s not easy to get a hold of the drugs either. For Grob's own research on the potential medical uses of psilocybin and MDMA, he needed to get permission from the FDA, DEA, Research Advisory Panel of California and his own hospital before he could order any Schedule 1 drugs, which are synthesized in labs under contract with the federal government.
Grob hopes crowdfunding can at least knock down some of the financial barriers associated with this kind of research. But he does worry that some donors won't do their homework before handing their money over to researchers who might not be prepared to overcome the regulatory hurdles.
"You need to ask, 'Do these people have the right background and institutional support to do what they say they want to do?'" he said.
While the $130,000 MAPS raised might sound like a lot of money, stage two studies with hundreds of people can cost anywhere from $400,000 to millions of dollars. Crowdfunding is being used now to fund mostly smaller pilot studies that could be used as arguments to convince large institutions to foot the bill for more comprehensive research.
Blackston says he just hopes other veterans will be able to get the same therapy that he did.
"I was lucky to get this treatment," he said. "I can relate to other vets, to that hopeless, alone feeling that nothing can get this stuff out of your head except for a bullet or something. I think if this treatment was already available, lives could have been saved."