Q&A with Dr. Cole Marta
3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (more commonly known as MDMA) is a psychoactive drug that was first made in 1912 for pharmaceutical use. The CIA experimented using MDMA as a psychological weapon during the Cold War, and by the 1970s it was being used by psychiatrists as a psychotherapeutic tool to facilitate clarity, communication, and participation in therapy sessions. By the 1980s MDMA (or ecstasy/ molly as it became known in the streets) became a widely used party-drug, and in 1985 the United States outlawed it as a part of the “War on Drugs” movement.
Today’s Q&A features Dr. Cole Marta, the man who is spearheading the movement to reverse MDMA’s place as a schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. Marta is the Chief of Research in the cutting-edge studies using MDMA-assisted psychotherapy to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The study, backed by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), is currently in Stage 3 of clinical trials, and has already had a profound impact on shifting the perception about the role that psychedelics could play in healing the human mind, and body.
MAPS' goal is to get approval by Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to use this drug in therapy by 2021.
1. what time is your alarm set for?
Right now? 8:30am
2. what did you have for breakfast?
Green Protein Smoothie.
3. what are you currently working on to better your Self?
Putting boundaries on work.
4. what book do you think everyone should read?
Skinny Legs and All, by Tom Robbins.
5. who is one of your biggest inspirations?
So many. My family and friends inspire me. If I had to pick one, it would be my mother.
6. what is the last thing you purchased?
Green Protein Smoothie.
7. what is the best advice you've ever received?
Follow your bliss.
8. what is something you cant live without?
9. what is on your night stand?
A lamp and my favorite glass for water.
10. if you could only have one (for the rest of your life): chocolate, or avocado?
A Deeper Dive
1. What prompted your interest in the world of psychedelics?
I grew up with a different take and perspective on psychedelics. Specifically, I grew up with an awareness of psychedelics as medicines and sacraments, like the Huichole Indian use of peyote, for example. There was Huichole bead art in my home. I was exposed to Terrence McKenna in the late 80s and early 90s, so in middle school I was regularly hearing bootleg audiotapes of his lectures back when he would lecture to a few dozen people at a Holiday Inn events room, or something comparable. In middle school, one of the first books I read for fun was a birthday gift from my amazing aunt, Barb, who was a deadhead. The book was “A Separate Reality” by Carlos Castaneda. With this knowledge, combined with the discovery of the pre-drug war era work of Richard Alpert, Timothy Leary, Stanislov Grof, Ralph Metzner, John Lilly, my interest really grew. I really wanted to figure out how I could help remove the barriers to the research. By the time I went to medical school, I had developed many opinions on the subject. With my MD, I wanted to help with the research efforts in whatever capacity that credential afforded me, and also found the MD degree to be useful in having my opinions be given more consideration. It gave me a louder voice. Now there is data and studies that I can draw attention to with that voice, and I have been lucky to be able to replace opinions with science.
2. What do you think the biggest misconception is about psychedelics, and how is your work with MDMA and PTSD looking to change that?
The biggest misconceptions, I would say, is illustrated by their classification as schedule I drugs. Schedule I is defined as having no medical benefit, and only potential for harm. The MDMA work done so far has strongly suggested the potential benefits for not only PTSD, but also social anxiety in adults with autism has been looked at, as well as anxiety associated with terminal illness. There are risks of harm associated with any drug, and psychedelics are no different, but the work with MDMA and PTSD is demonstrating that those risks can be significantly mitigated with appropriate clinical use in such a way that the risk/benefit ratio favors the benefits in many cases.
3. What does MDMA do, and how is MDMA assisted psychotherapy helping those suffering from PTSD?
MDMA does a number of things, and there are many theories about how those effects may benefit people who suffer with PTSD. We know that neurobiologically, MDMA increases blood flow to parts of the brain that are associated with higher brain functions such as processing information. The effects of which would be expected to be, and are reported by participants as, feeling sharper and clearer when thinking about their experiences. MDMA also has been shown to decrease blood flow to the parts of the brain associated with fear. Participants, therefore, have an easier time recalling difficult memories and even emotions, without being so overwhelmed by fear that they are unable to work with them. Another effect that has been demonstrated is an increase in oxytocin, which is a hormone that is strongly linked to bonding. Mothers release oxytocin when breastfeeding, for example. So, on days where participants ingest MDMA with their therapists, they are able to recall their traumatic events with less blocking or avoidance, they are sharper and clearer when mentally working with these events, and feel a strong bond and safety with their therapists that could otherwise take months or years to achieve. Just FYI, you can naturally cause the release of oxytocin by holding a hug for 30 seconds or more.
4. What does a typical therapy session/ progression look like?
It is a whole series of sessions. Based on the protocol of the studies that are already done, there are three preparatory sessions that are about a week apart and 90 minutes long, each. These are with the participant and a therapist pair (typically one male and one female). Then there is a 8-10 hour “experimental session” with the MDMA, again with both therapists present. It is in the office, and efforts are made to make the office more warm and inviting. Then participants stay overnight with a night attendant, and the therapists return the next morning for a follow-up. Then there are three integration sessions, again 90 minutes each, processing what came up in the experimental session, as well as anything that has come up afterward. Then another experimental session, followed by three more integration sessions, another experimental, and then three termination sessions. So, in total, there were three sessions with the MDMA in the studies that have been completed, with 12 sessions without MDMA.
5. If you were made President, what’s the first thing you would do?
I would try to identify the genuine experts on the relevant matters of the day, and set an expectation that decisions will be based on data and science, while maximizing efforts to continue research in all areas of government to ensure decisions are based on the best data.
6. What actionable advice would you give to someone who wants to take steps towards healing themselves?
Engage in any activity that attunes yourself to your own experience. Follow your bliss.
7. What is the most profound psychedelic experience you’ve had?
I had a holotropic breathwork experience (a breathing technique developed by Stanislov Grof that produces a non-ordinary state) that was one of the most profound experiences of my life. The content was deeply personal, but the process involved powerful visualizations of metaphorical content that completely took me by surprise. Afterward, I felt a great relief and peace of mind that lasted several days.
8. Where can readers go to learn more about your project, and what can they do to help the cause?
They can go to www.maps.org to learn more about the sponsor of this research. For very clinical, factual, and detailed information about this study, and other planned studies in the future, go to www.clinicaltrials.gov and search “MDMA” and “PTSD” to find this study. You can also search other key terms for anyone looking for active studies happening involving any treatment or condition. For example, you could search “psilocybin”, and it will bring up a list of all the studies with that compound.
If people are inclined to help, I would encourage them to please do so, by going to www.maps.org to donate to the sponsor. This research is extremely expensive, and it is an opportunity to be part of history in so many ways. This is the first time, to my knowledge, that a drug has the opportunity to be brought to market being entirely funded by donations. It is also the first time that a schedule I drug will have completed the FDA approval process, and the MDMA trials are the closest to completing the FDA process of any of the psychedelics being researched at this time.