RICK DOBLIN spent high school reading big novels and thinking about big issues like the Vietnam War and worrying about big things like when he’d be able to muster up the courage to ask a girl for a date. Not long after his 1971 arrival as a freshman on the campus of New College in Sarasota, Florida, however, he discovered LSD and mescaline. He suddenly found himself tripping under the palm trees, dancing all night, jumping into the coed naked pool at dawn and generally slipping the shackles of his suburban Chicago upbringing. It was, in many ways, a typical college education of the early Seventies, and it had a typical ending: Doblin lasted but one semester. “And that’s not the worst of it,” he says. “There were three semesters in a year. I barely lasted three months.”
Not that Doblin hasn’t rehabilitated himself since then in fact, we are standing atop one of his rehab projects right now: a house he built when he was twenty-one years old, when he was so shattered that merely “to do something and go to sleep and come back the next day and find that it was still there was a great comfort.” Nearly thirty years later, it’s still there, and easy to find: You drive down a street in a typical Florida neighborhood of stucco ranches and bungalows with red-tiled roofs and lawns carefully cut around palm trees until a vestige of jungle appears on your right, and behind the tangle of green you can just make out a cedar-sided, rambling two-story house.
A knock on the fortresslike double door produces Doblin, a short, well-built man with a mop of curly hair who greets you with a hug and an elfin grin that makes him look younger than his forty-seven years. He proudly ushers you into one of the strangest interior spaces you’ve ever seen.
You go into the living room and stand in front of a granite fireplace, its soaring chimney adorned by carved wooden idols. You wander through the warren of spaces demarcated by wooden walls on wheels, notice the double bed hanging from chains beneath a skylight, the mandala inlay in a wall, the hand-carved mushroom switch plates, the gorgeous stained-glass windows, the riot of oblique angles. You climb the twisting staircase into the six-sided master bedroom that sits top and center, then up a ladder and out a window and up another ladder to the terrace astride the roof, all the while listening to Doblin’s nonstop narration of the theory and meaning behind the million details of this Frank Lloyd Wright-on-acid design, and you can’t help but think that what he is saying is true: that his house beckons you onward and upward and further and deeper into a world behind the world.
And then you realize something else: The house, which Doblin has named Arcturus, not only embodies psychedelic drugs’ universe-in-a-nutshell consciousness, it would be the perfect place to achieve it. Which is the point, he is quick to say. After he dropped out of school, he traveled for a few months, then returned to Sarasota and began to build a life, and eventually a house, that would have the ongoing, serious, intentional use of psychedelic drugs at its heart.
“I spent the next ten years reading, tripping and building,” he says.
But it wasn’t just about getting high. “I thought there was a link between the things I was doing with psychedelics and certain types of altruistic social consciousness and action” a thought that has inspired him to go where few psychedelic warriors have gone before: into the halls of government regulatory agencies, where he is attempting to get one of his favorite psychedelic drugs, MDMA, approved for prescription use.
Doblin thinks that MDMA is a unique, and uniquely beneficial, medicine. He says that because it creates a sense of well-being and fosters empathy and introspection without the risk of the frightening cognitive and perceptual distortions of other psychedelics, it can be a powerful aid to psychotherapy, one that “can be used in any situation in which people have to confront difficult, emotionally challenging issues, in which avoidance is likely and insight will be helpful.” This, he claims, makes the drug particularly useful in psychiatric conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, in which, it is thought, the daunting task of coming to terms with traumas like sexual assault is more than a person can face.
He also claims to have used the drug to help people dying from terminal illness handle their anxiety and depression and difficulty talking with their families. He says it’s also benefited couples whose marriages are on the rocks, and the “worried well” – people whose difficulties are below the threshold of psychiatric illness but are nonetheless likely to be the occasion for a trip to the therapist or a prescription for Prozac. And, Doblin adds, MDMA “can help us to study love and self-acceptance, to open a scientific window on processes that are a central part of human nature.”
These beliefs lie behind the task to which he has devoted himself for the past fifteen years. As the head of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies – a nonprofit drug company whose headquarters are in Arcturus – he has doggedly pursued his ultimate goal: to make MDMA, which you may know as Ecstasy, safely and freely available to people who need it for medical purposes. This part of Doblin’s rehabilitation is not finished yet, but he’s closer than you might think, closer than most people know.