An Iraq War veteran fights for psychedelic medicines
Jonathan Lubecky says MDMA-assisted therapy helped him overcome PTSD. Now he wants to help others.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a progressive champion. Matt Gaetz is a conservative firebrand. They don’t agree on much — except psychedelics.
Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, and Gaetz, a Florida Republican, have joined forces in Congress to try to make it easier for scientists to research marijuana and psychedelic drugs, including MDMA and psilocybin.
Such bipartisan cooperation will be needed to support the growth of psychedelic medicines and end the drug war, says Jonathan Lubecky, a retired Army sergeant and Iraq war veteran who now lobbies on behalf of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS.
“This isn’t a party line issue,” Lubecky says. “The polar opposites in the House came together on psychedelics.”
Voters are coming around as well. Last week, Oregon became the first state in the US to legalize a psychedelic medicine; about 56 percent of the state’s voters supported a ballot measure that will allow the medical use of psilocybin, the active ingredient in so-called magic mushrooms. Washington, D.C., decriminalized the growth and possession of psychedelic mushrooms.
A nonprofit, MAPS has two big goals. It wants to make psychedelic medicines available to those in need; to that end, it is conducting FDA-approved clinical trials to show that MDMA, with therapy, can effectively treat post traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD. More broadly, MAPS wants to make psychedelic drugs and marijuana safely and legally available.
For Lubecky, these issues are deeply personal.
A Ohio native, Lubecky, 43, served in the Marine Corps for four years after finishing high school in 1995. He re-enlisted in the Army after the September 11 terrorist attacks. While deployed in Iraq, he was knocked out by an enemy mortar attack that left him with a traumatic brain injury and PTSD.
Lubecky tried all manner of treatment — cognitive behavioral therapy, prolonged exposure therapy and antidepressants, among others — to no avail. Depressed and without hope, he tried several times to take his own life.
“Combat takes an emotional toll,” he says. “One of the things we never realized was that a lot of us would be asked to give our life for our country, not in Iraq, not in Afghanistan, but far far from the battlefield at home, in the dark.”
The Veterans Administration estimates that about 8 million Americans have PTSD. Treatments have worked for many, but for others the disease can persist for years. Depression, anxiety and substance abuse disorders often accompany PTSD. An average of 17 veterans commit suicide every day, according the most recent estimates from the VA.
An intern at the VA quietly told Lubecky about MAPS and its clinical trials of MDMA, which is known on the street as ecstasy or molly. (Caution: Drugs sold illegally under those names can be adulterated or dangerous.) He began treatments with Dr. Michael Mithoefer, a psychiatrist, and his wife, Annie, a registered nurse, who are among the world’s leading researchers into MDMA. Lubecky has been living in South Carolina, where the Mithoefers operate a clinic.
His course of treatment, which lasted 12 weeks, included three eight-hour sessions during which Lubecky took MDMA. Each drug experience was preceded by three 90-minute psychotherapy sessions to prepare him, and followed by three more 90-minute sessions to help him understand what had happened.
MDMA is more likely to bring about warm feelings than to trigger the sensory distortions that accompany classic psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin. The National Institute on Drug Abuse — no fan of illegal drugs — says MDMA’s effects include “an enhanced sense of well-being, increased extroversion, emotional warmth, empathy toward others and a willingness to discuss emotionally-charged memories.”
In a clinical setting, MDMA can help build trust between therapists and patients, who then can work through difficult memories. “The MDMA puts the mind, body and spirit in the place where it needs to be for the therapy to work,” Lubecky says. “It disconnects that fear response in the brain, that fight or flight, so you can talk about the trauma.”
The treatment is nevertheless challenging.
“It’s not a bed of roses,” Lubecky says. “You are going through all of the worst moments of your life.”
So far, the findings of MAPS’ research, including a study published by The Lancet Psychiatry, have been encouraging. The FDA has granted MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD a “breakthrough therapy designation,” which means that early evidence indicates that the drug may demonstrate substantial improvement over existing therapies. The results of MAPS’ first Phase 3 study will be made public any day now, as MAPS recruits volunteers for a second, and final, Phase 3 study. If all goes according to plan, the FDA could approve MDMA as a medicine in 2023.
For his part, Lubecky had returned to college at The Citadel to pursue a lifelong interest in politics, while still struggling with PTSD. Days after a suicide attempt, he listened to a speech by Rand Paul, the conservative U.S. senator from Kentucky, and afterwards lined up to shake his hand.
Lubecky describes what happened next:
He noticed the bandages on my wrists. He asked what happened, and I said, “Oh, a week ago I tried to kill myself and I cut my wrists.” He pulled me aside and said, “Forget I’m a senator. I’m also a doctor. I want to know what’s going on right now.” We talked for 20 minutes, and at the end of it, he gave me his right-hand man’s cell phone number and said, “If you ever feel that way again, I want you to call that phone number, and we will use the full weight of my office and the federal government to fix whatever problem you have.”
Two years later, Lubecky was feeling much better but he called Rand Paul’s aide with a request: Could he work on the senator’s presidential campaing? He landed a job, got more involved with conservative policies and later asked Rick Doblin, the founder and executive director of MAPS, if he could become an advocate for MAPS.
As the organization’s veterans and governmental affairs liaison since 2018, Lubecky has been telling his story to anyone who will listen. “Lots of people are suffering like I was,” he says, and he’d like them to know there is hope.
MAPS has tried to work with the VA for years, offering to help fund research and getting help from former U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller, whose cousin, the late Richard Rockefeller, was a MAPS donor. The VA has kept its distance but Doblin and Lubecky still would like the work with the government to reach more veterans.
As for the efforts of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Matt Gaetz, they did not fare well. Their amendment to eliminate a long-time restriction on federal funds being used to research psychedelics or marijuana came to a vote in the House, but it was defeated by 331 to 91, with a majority of Democrats and Republicans voting no.
The politics will change, Lubecky says, as younger lawmakers come to power and as the evidence accumulates that psychedelic medicines can help those who need them. Last week’s vote in Oregon was the latest evidence that attitudes are changing.
Says Lubecky: “You can’t continue to demonize these drugs when there are studies that show they help people.”