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But that year Griffiths’s career took an unexpected turn, the result of two serendipitous introductions. The first came when a friend introduced him to Siddha Yoga. Despite his behaviorist orientation as a scientist, Griffiths had always been interested in what philosophers call phenomenology—the subjective experience of consciousness. He had tried meditation as a graduate student but found that “he couldn’t sit still without going stark-raving mad. Three minutes felt like three hours.” But when he tried it again in 1994, “something opened up for me.” He started meditating regularly, going on retreats, and working his way through a variety of Eastern spiritual traditions. He found himself drawn “deeper and deeper into this mystery.”

Somewhere along the way, Griffiths had what he modestly describes as “a funny kind of awakening”—a mystical experience. I was surprised when Griffiths mentioned this during our first meeting in his office, so I hadn’t followed up, but even after I had gotten to know him a little better, Griffiths was still reluctant to say much more about exactly what happened and, as someone who had never had such an experience, I had trouble gaining any traction with the idea whatsoever. All he would tell me is that the experience, which took place in his meditation practice, acquainted him with “something way, way beyond a material worldview that I can’t really talk to my colleagues about, because it involves metaphors or assumptions that I’m really uncomfortable with as a scientist.”

In time, what he was learning about “the mystery of consciousness and existence” in his meditation practice came to seem more compelling to him than his science. He began to feel somewhat alienated: “None of the people I was close to had any interest in entertaining those questions, which fell into the general category of the spiritual, and religious people I just didn’t get.

“Here I am, a full professor, publishing like crazy, running off to important meetings, and thinking I was a fraud.” He began to lose interest in the research that had organized his whole adult life. “I could study a new sedative hypnotic, learn something new about brain receptors, be on another FDA [Food and Drug Administration] panel, go to another conference, but so what? I was more emotionally and intellectually curious about where this other path might lead. My drug research began to seem vacuous. I was going through the motions at work, much more interested in going home in the evening to meditate.” The only way he could motivate himself to continue writing grants was to think of it as a “service project” for his graduate students and postdocs.

In the case of his caffeine research, Griffiths had been able to take his curiosity about a dimension of his own experience—why did he feel compelled to drink coffee every day?—and turn it into a productive line of scientific inquiry. But he could see no way to do that with his deepening curiosity about the dimensions of consciousness that meditation had opened up to him. “It never occurred to me there was any way to study it scientifically.” Stymied and bored, Griffiths began to entertain thoughts of quitting science and going off to an ashram in India.

It was around this time that Bob Schuster, an old friend and colleague who had recently retired as head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, phoned Griffiths to suggest he talk to a young man he had recently met at Esalen named Bob Jesse. Jesse had organized a small gathering of researchers, therapists, and religious scholars at the legendary Big Sur retreat center to discuss the spiritual and therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs and how they might be rehabilitated. Jesse himself was neither a medical professional nor a scientist; he was a computer engineer, a vice president of business development at Oracle, who had made it his mission to revive the science of psychedelics—but as a tool not so much of medicine as of spiritual development.

Griffiths had told Schuster a little about his spiritual practice and confided in him his growing discontent with conventional drug research.

“You should talk to this guy,” Schuster told him. “They have some interesting ideas about working with entheogens,” he said. “You might have something in common.”


• • •

WHEN THE HISTORY of second-wave psychedelic research is written, Bob Jesse will be seen as one of a pair of scientific outsiders in America—amateurs, really, and brilliant eccentrics—who worked tirelessly, often behind the scenes, to get it off the ground. Both found their vocation in the wake of transformative psychedelic experiences that convinced them these substances had the potential to heal not only individuals but humankind as a whole and that the best path to their rehabilitation was by way of credible scientific research. In many cases, these untrained researchers dreamed up the experiments first and then found (and funded) the scientists to conduct them. Often you will find their names on the papers, usually in the last position.

Of the two, Rick Doblin has been at it longer and is by far the more well known. Doblin founded the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) all the way back in the dark days of 1986—the year after MDMA was made illegal and a time when most wiser heads were convinced that restarting research into psychedelics was a cause beyond hopeless.

Doblin, born in 1953, is a great shaggy dog with a bone; he has been lobbying to change the government’s mind about psychedelics since shortly after graduating from New College, in Florida, in 1987. After experimenting with LSD as an undergraduate, and later with MDMA, Doblin decided his calling in life was to become a psychedelic therapist. But after the banning of MDMA in 1985, that dream became unachievable without a change in federal laws and regulations, so he decided he’d better first get a doctorate in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. There, he mastered the intricacies of the FDA’s drug approval process, and in his dissertation plotted the laborious path to official acceptance that psilocybin and MDMA are now following.

Doblin is disarmingly, perhaps helplessly, candid, happy to talk openly to a reporter about his formative psychedelic experiences as well as political strategy and tactics. Like Timothy Leary, Doblin is the happiest of warriors, never not smiling and exhibiting a degree of enthusiasm for the work you wouldn’t expect from a man who has been knocking his head against the same wall for his entire adult life. Doblin works out of a somewhat Dickensian office tucked into the attic of his rambling colonial in Belmont, Massachusetts, at a desk stacked to the ceiling with precarious piles of manuscripts, journal articles, photographs, and memorabilia reaching back more than forty years. Some of the memorabilia commemorates the time early in his career when Doblin decided the best way to end sectarian strife would be to mail a group of the world’s spiritual leaders tablets of MDMA, a drug famous for its ability to break down barriers between people and kindle empathy. Around the same time, he arranged to have a thousand doses of MDMA sent to people in the Soviet military who were working on arms control negotiations with President Reagan.

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