Reason Podcast

Countdown To (Legalized) Ecstasy! Rick Doblin, MAPS, & the Psychedelic Renaissance [Podcast]

Serious researchers are about to do what Timothy Leary never managed: Get government approval for LSD, MDMA, and more.


"The experiences I've had with psychedelic drugs, namely psilocybin, MDMA, and LSD, but particularly MDMA, have been personally transformative for me," says Mike Riggs, a reporter for Reason and the author of a blockbuster new story about how medical and psychiatric researchers are using psychedelics to help their patients. "Not frequent use, but kind of taking these drugs and then having really intense, in-depth, long conversations with intelligent people about how to get better, just how to get better as a person, as a human being, how to be a better neighbor, how to be a better friend."

It was that experience that led Riggs to study groups such as The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and its founder, Rick Doblin. "Doblin is a totally fascinating guy," Riggs tells me in the newest Reason Podcast. "He started MAPS in 1986. His journey of studying and advocating for the use of psychedelic drugs in therapeutic settings began in the late 1960s or early '70s. He was kind of a guy who, for a long time starting when he was in college all the way to the mid-'80s, he was a guy who's like, 'We can get this to where it needs to be in terms of legitimacy simply by talking about it and simply by doing it.' And so in the 1960s and 1970s, there's some underground psychedelic therapy work in which psychiatrists who either participated in the research in the 1950s with LSD continued secretly. And then going into the 1970s when MDMA was kind of rediscovered by this chemist named Sasha Shulgin. MDMA wasn't illegal. It hadn't been banned. So psychiatrists were able to use it as kind of a research chemical."

The tale Riggs tells isn't one of wanton hedonism or Dr. Strange-level trips. Rather, it's one in which doctors and patients are working together against the backdrop of a decades-long war on drugs to figure out new and effective ways to treat PTSD, depression, and other maladies with currently illegal substances. And more amazing, how Doblin and crew are on the verge of changing the way that the government regulates drugs.

Produced by Ian Keyser.

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This is a rush transcript—check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.

Nick Gillespie: Hi. I'm Nick Gillespie and this is the Reason podcast. Please subscribe to us at iTunes, and rate and review us while you're there.

Today, we are talking with Mike Riggs. He's a reporter for Reason. He writes for the magazine, the print magazine. He writes for the website. And he occasionally appears in videos at Reason TV. Mike, thanks so much for talking to us.

Mike Riggs: Yeah. It's my pleasure.

Gillespie: All right. So, you've got a kind of blockbuster story coming out, or out at, which is about how after 30, 40 years, 50 years, almost 60 years, psychedelic drugs are being taken seriously by all kinds of medical researchers, psychological researchers, et cetera. Explain, briefly, what the thesis of your story is.

Riggs: The thesis of the story, I would say, is basically that while most people who follow drug policy reform kind of broadly or generally think of it as using ballot initiatives for drugs like marijuana to basically kind of legalize through mobilizing the citizenry that there's an entire alternative path that's being pursued by psychedelic researchers. People who are studying the medical applications for LSD, psilocybine, MDMA, and some other drugs like that. Their path, they have never tried the referendum approach. They've never tried getting legislatures to pass laws to decriminalize or legalize these drugs. The trajectory they chose was instead to go through the FDA. Let's jumped through all the hoops. Let's dot all the I's, cross all the T's, and that's all the trials necessary to have the FDA approve these substances as pharmaceutical drugs. The benefit of this is that it basically removes democratic politics from the drug approval process-

Gillespie: And democratic, small d there, right? I mean, you don't have to-

Riggs: Yeah, yeah.

Gillespie: You don't have to get 50% plus one or two thirds or anything like that. What you are doing is you're going to the gate keeper institution that says, "Here are good drugs that pharmaceutical companies and doctors will create, and doctors will prescribe. You'll pay a co-pay, et cetera." As opposed to basically the model for medical marijuana and recreational marijuana, increasingly.

Riggs: Yeah. And so, the plus side is you don't have to worry about a legislature sabotaging this or having some kind of campaign finance war where it's who can spend the most on advertising. The downside is that it happens much more slowly. California passed it's first medical marijuana law in 1996. We're just shy of 20 years later and marijuana, is across the country, revolutionized. Meanwhile, the process that psychedelic researchers have gone through, started in about 1986. It's now 2017. None of these drugs are yet legal.

Gillespie: What is the status? I mean, the drugs in America are put, since the Nixon years, they're put on different schedules including a schedule one drug, which it's got a high potential for abuse and no known medical use, right?

Riggs: Yeah, that's true.

Gillespie: Where is LSD, psilocybin, Ecstasy or MDMA, and the like? Because what's interesting about these and LSD is obviously, or not obviously, but probably the most famous, but that drug was legal until 1966. Ecstasy was legal until 1986. Are any of these drugs, are they in something other than schedule one?

Riggs: No, they're all in schedule one. But the one exception is ketamine, which I think is on schedule two or schedule three. And that's only because it was used for a very long time as a surgical anesthetic before anybody realized that it had dissociative properties, which dissociation kind of fits under the umbrella or psychedelic side effects, though it's not really a psychedelic drug. But everything else is in schedule one.

Gillespie: Walk us through. What is LSD good for besides just tripping your balls out?

Riggs: The argument, and this argument was made a long time ago, Aldous Huxley in "Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell," wrote about LSD. Albert Hoffman, who was the chemist at Sandoz Pharmaceuticals who studied LSD. Basically, going back to the '40s and '50s and '60s, the argument has been that psychedelic drugs, and the first one that anybody really tried was the LSD, kind of stops you from being who you are for long enough for you to change who you are. As an adjunct to psychotherapy, if you're working with someone who's seeing a lot of people taking LSD and worked with a lot of people who've taken LSD, this is not actually as scary as it sounds. If you're somebody who has a substance use disorder or you're a binge eater or you're depressed or you're anxious or you're-

Gillespie: And an alcoholic, right?

Riggs: Whatever you want to say.

Gillespie: Yeah.

Riggs: Yeah. That was the first one, that was the big one was alcoholics, was the idea that there was something underneath the alcoholism, that there was some sort of psychological issue that if you could just sort of pause a person and say, "Let's start from scratch." Again, there's really no other drug or really any other medical therapy or modality that says, "Let's just make you somebody else."

Gillespie: Right.

Riggs: That's kind of what the psychedelic model is.

Gillespie: And then, what about psilocybin and ecstasy? Why are medical researchers or and what's interesting, you went to the MAPS conference. Rick Doblin, the kind of grand poobah of MAPS. These are not people who are, they're not silly people, they're not superficial people. They're talking about how do individuals use drugs like we all use other training regimens or diet or whatever, meditation, courses in education to better ourselves or to understand ourselves better. That's what these people are about. What about psilocybin and ecstasy? What do those do for people in a therapeutic setting?Riggs: If we can just leave the chemistry aside a little bit because it's kind of complicated for both drugs, but at a basic level, psilocybin and MDMA are both being used in patient populations that are experiencing anxiety related to a traumatic experience. For a lot of the studies with psilocybin, they've been used in patient populations that either have a terminal illness or a life threatening illness. In a lot of cases, that's cancer of some sort.

And then for MDMA, it's a lot of the clinical trials involve people who have PTSD as a result of military service or sexual abuse. The basic idea's that while on these substances the patient is just able to confront difficult concepts, difficult memories, without re-experiencing the panic and anxiety and lockdown that they feel when they re-visit those memories when their sober. This is one of the idea of triggering for people with PTSD is that whenever they're confronted by something that resembles this really traumatic experience, you hear about people coming back from Afghanistan or Iraq who hear a car backfire, a door slammed really loudly, and suddenly they're back in Fallujah.

MDMA allows them to sort of re-visit these really hard memories and talk about them and think about them and create a demarcation, maybe a wall, a compartment, where that memory, they're able to disconnect it from this sort of unintentional feedback loop of emotions where every time that memory is evoked, they then have to experience panic or anxiety or fear. And so they can consider the memory, they can be reminded of that experience without feeling all this other stuff.

Gillespie: Well, talk a little bit about MAPS and Rick Doblin.

Riggs: Yeah, so Doblin is a totally fascinating guy. He started MAPS in 1986. His journey of studying and advocating for the use of psychedelic drugs in therapeutic settings began in the late 1960s or early '70s. He was kind of a guy who, for a long time starting when he was in college all the way to the mid-'80s, he was a guy who's like, "We can get this to where it needs to be in terms of legitimacy simply by talking about it and simply by doing it." And so in the 1960s and 1970s, there's some underground psychedelic therapy work in which psychiatrists who either participated in the research in the 1950s with LSD continued secretly. And then going into the 1970s when MDMA was kind of re-discovered by this chemist named Sasha Shulgin. MDMA wasn't illegal. It hadn't been banned. So psychiatrists were able to use it as kind of a research chemical.

Doblin had met all these people. He'd heard great stories about therapists working with these drugs. He said, "This should be enough. We've got all these M.D.s, a lot of them affiliated with academic institutions. A lot of them have been in practice for a long time. They have great medical records. They haven't been sued out of existence. They haven't had their licenses revoked. This should be enough to get the government to recognize these as therapeutic drugs."

As we know, most every therapeutic drug that also happens to make people feel good, MDMA worked it's way into the recreational community the same way that LSD had and other drugs like that. And so, when the DEA decided to crack down on MDMA in the 1980s, the evidence that all these psychiatrists put forward and that Doblin helped organize and deliver to Washington D.C. really didn't move the needle. The DEA engaged in years long battle with all these therapists throughout the 1980s and by the late 1980s had won the battle. And so, these drugs were added to schedule one.

Gillespie: One of the things that is fascinating about ecstasy or MDMA, excuse me, is and I say this as somebody, I was in college from '81 to '85, ecstasy was free and legal, or it wasn't free, but it was very cheap and it was legal. But it was seen as an anti-social drug because you would have such intense feelings and emotions. You would just stay in a room with yourself and your girlfriend or boyfriend and touch fingerprints. You wouldn't even go outside because you didn't want to. You were exploring yourself. It was a very introspective drug. Once it was banned, it became the ultimate party drug and the rave drug and then everybody … One of the reasons it was banned is because it turned people dangerously anti-social. After it was banned, it became the rave drug of choice. Kind of fascinating.

How do the phrases set and setting fit into the broader kind of psychedelic research that you've been covering?

Riggs: Yeah. Set and setting is probably the most significant contribution from Timothy Leary to the contemporary movement. Leary, in the 1960s, was a big advocate of LSD. He worked at Harvard and lost his job because he was giving drugs to undergrads. He coined this idea of set and setting, which is set is mindset. So how you're thinking about a drug or what you're going to do on the drug before you do it. And then setting is the physical setting that you're in. Psychedelic therapists still use this language today. Mindset, you want to prepare a patient for the experience that they're going to have when they're on one of these drugs. And then setting is you want to make sure that they feel safe and comfortable and that there's nothing in their immediate physical environment that's going to upset them.

It's also terminology that's used by recreational users. I mean, there are all kinds of forums on the internet from Bluelight to Reddit where users will say to other users, "Hey. I was thinking about using this psychedelic drug at event X, Y, or Z." And then there will be a conversation about whether or not that's a good set or setting based on how the drug affects the mind. It's very interesting. There's a sort of an element of planning and preparation for psychedelic drugs you generally don't see with things like marijuana or cocaine just because the potential for a really bad experience if you're not thinking ahead and you're not being prepared is so much more real for LSD or psilocybin than it is for marijuana.

Gillespie: Well, then, it's also the trip lasts longer. It's like planning a golf outing or a long horseback ride or something where with cocaine you're not talking about minutes. You're talking about, an LSD trip could last anywhere from 4 to 12 to 24 hours.

Riggs: Yeah. LSD lasts an incredibly long time. MDMA is on the shorter side. It's maybe two hours, two and a half hours. Psilocybin's somewhere between. But yeah, these drugs all last much longer than marijuana and certainly much longer than cocaine, which peaks really quickly and then you hit the trough pretty quickly after that.

Gillespie: What did these guys do to win the FDA over to at least considering rescheduling things or to take seriously the idea that these drugs that have been associated for decades now with hippies and youth and out of control kinds, all of that kind of stuff? How did they get the FDAs attention to say, "Okay. You know what? We want to start thinking about this more seriously."

Riggs: Part of it was sheer, dumb luck. In the late 1980s, the FDA created a new unit within itself that was tasked with expediting the investigational new drug application process, which is where a researcher says, "Hey. I have chemical X or Y. I think it could be useful in this setting. I'd like to move my research from animals to humans." Prior to the late 1980s, there were a lot of those applications would come into the FDA and a lot of them have just been put on hold. This group called the Pilot Drug Evaluation Staff started in the late 1980s to bring some sort of entrepreneurial elements into the FDA, started going through all these old applications and realized that overwhelming amount of applications that had been put on hold were for psychedelic drugs.

Around the time that this division was created, Rick Doblin, again the founder and president of MAPS, met a psychiatrist named Charles Grobe, who still practices today and is a medical school professor in California. Together, they said, "Hey. Let's submit a proposal for FDA to kind of get this process started." So that's what they did. Grobe put together an investigational new drug application with a limited trial for cancer patients suffering anxiety. He and Doblin and some other psychedelic researchers, mostly chemists, flew to Washington D.C. for meetings with all the alphabet agencies, DEA, the drugs [czar's 00:16:09] office, the FDA, Health and Human Services, and basically made their case.

They said, "There's a lot of data out there that wasn't necessarily conducted or gathered through the clinical trial process, but that was gathered by responsible investigators who documented what they were doing showing that we can use this safely in humans. We think we should be allowed to proceed especially if this ends up being a kind of revolutionary new drug for psychiatric disorders." The FDA, after all these meetings with DEA and drug czar's office, the feeling was, "Hey. If this is as tightly controlled, if this process is as by the book as we would request of any pharmaceutical giant, you can go ahead and do it."

So Grobe and Doblin got permission to do so. They raised the money from philanthropists to conduct these studies. That's something else worth noting, that almost none of the psychedelic research is tied to the pharmaceutical industry in any way because all these drugs are off patent. They're all-

Gillespie: Even though all of them, I mean, came out of the, for lack of better term, the legitimate pharmaceutical industry. Right?

Riggs: Yeah, no, that's true. MDMA, LSD were both developed by pharmaceutical companies in the 20th century. Merck developed MDMA right at the turn of the 20th century as a sort of intermediate drug for something else. They never used it in humans. It was never of interest to their clinical team. LSD was kind of the same. But, yeah. The only one that's really got any pharmaceutical company involvement is ketamine, again, because it's not a schedule one, because it was a surgical anesthesia. But, so they just said, "Hey. Let's raise the money. Let's put together these trials."

They kind of bootstrapped it for a little while. I got to talk to a woman at MAPS who defected, for lack of a better word, from Novartis, which is a pharmaceutical giant to go work at MAPS. She talks about how for over a decade, nearly two decades, MAPS did all of their paperwork like an Excel spreadsheet and by hand. They were sort of documented all this way using photocopies and stuff like that. She kind of upgraded them to the more modern pharmaceutical style electronic and digital databases and that kind of thing. But they just tried to do what any other drug researcher working with a budget 100 times larger than their own would do.

Gillespie: Is there interest in pharmaceutical companies to start purveying newer versions, newer and better versions, time release versions? All of that kind of stuff of these drugs.

Riggs: For ketamine, there is right now, again because they know it's legal right now. If you're able to come up with a newer or better version of ketamine, you're time window for getting that approved is much shorter than for any of these other drugs.

I think that once one of these psychedelic drugs is moved from schedule one to schedule two or schedule three, something like MDMA, either you will see some pharmaceutical interest particularly when you get what's called post-market data in. A drug is moved to prescription status. And then for years afterward, you're able to collect a totally different type of data because you've gone from your clinical trial sample size, which will be a couple hundred people, to five years after it gets the pharmaceutical status you could have had 10 thousand people use the drugs, you could have had 50 thousand.

And so once we know what is most desirable about MDMA in this clinical setting, in this psychiatric setting, and what effects are least desirable, what effects kind of occasionally complicate or sabotage improvement, I suspect that's when you see the pharmaceutical companies saying they would look at that data and say, "Okay. Psychiatrists say that this is the best part of using this drug. This is not a great part. Well, let's make a drug that only has these ideal qualities and none of the bad ones."

Gillespie: Timothy Leary gave out psilocybin in his Good Friday experiments, along with Richard Alpert later, Ram Dass, at Harvard. That was the proximate cause for them getting bounced from Harvard. Leary obviously popularized LSD. He was a big promoter of pot use and stuff. He's kind of the villain, isn't he, in people who do psychedelic research? Talk a little bit about Timothy Leary's kind of ambivalent role or ambiguous role in all of this.

Riggs: He's sort of the guy without whom I'm not sure any of this would be possible, but because of him it hasn't already happened, if that makes sense. If you just look at his credentials, he got his PhD in psychology at UCLA and then he went to Harvard. Had he done everything by the book, had he not fallen in love with LSD, which LSD changed Timothy Leary's life. I mean, it transformed him as a human being and as a thinker. Had it not done all that. Had it remained purely academic for him, I suspect that this research would have never stopped and that maybe some of these drugs would be legal already for medical uses. But at the same time, I don't know if you ever get the national awareness that LSD developed without him.

He's a cautionary tale for contemporary researchers. They recognize that the credentials were necessary, that Leary being at Harvard, for a while, was very helpful, which is why so many of the researchers today, they are at Stanford. They're at UCLA. They're at Imperial College London. They're at Johns Hopkins University. They're at NYU. They're at Brown. I mean, they're just, they're all over the place. Being in those positions of authority and power and respect are really important.

The tricky thing is sort of always maintaining this wall, this firewall between the personal affection that most of these researchers, I won't say all of them because I haven't spoken to all of them, but many of the researchers recognize on a personal level that these drugs are very beneficial for most of the people who use them, even people who use them outside of a psychiatric setting. But in terms of what they say publicly, what they say in their research, they are very consistent and disciplined about saying, "Regardless of what we know anecdotally about these drugs, what we know is wise to recommend is that they only be used under supervision after they've been approved by the FDA." That's because of Leary.

Gillespie: One of the many of the fascinating aspects of your story, you discuss your own use, particularly with ecstasy, I guess. Can you tell us a little bit about that? How does that factor into this broader story of psychedelics kind of on the march for psychological well being and kind of realization of human potential for you?

Riggs: Yeah. It's funny. I kind of waffled a little bit on whether or not to include the personal stuff in my story just because as I was researching this one I was reading Albert Hoffman's memoir, "LSD: My Problem Child." One of the things he talks about this explosion of awareness of LSD in the 1960s and then an increase in recreational use. He blames, I don't know if blame's the right word, but he says that this coincides with a lot of writing about LSD in the popular press. There were a couple of memoirs that came out. Word leaked that Cary Grant, the actor, had used LSD and that it transformed him and made him a better actor.

I felt kind of self conscious about that, as well, because the experiences I've had with psychedelic drugs, namely psilocybin, MDMA, and LSD, but particularly MDMA, have been personally transformative for me. I think most of the people who have known me for many years would say that I'm a different person now than I was four or five years ago. Part of that is because I wasn't leading a particularly sustainable life five or six years ago. But part of it for me was that the transition to a more healthful way of being taking better care of my body, trying to be more diligent about building good habits was kind of aided by the use of psychedelic drugs. Not frequent use, but kind of taking these drugs and then having really intense, in depth, long conversations with intelligent people about how to get better, just how to get better as a person, as a human being, how to be a better neighbor, how to be a better friend. That kind of stuff.

The reason that I was ambivalent to include it in the story is that I only know my own story best, I know it's a good one. And I know lots of people who also have positive stories. But there are people who have bad ones. There are people who have problem use with MDMA. It does have an amphetamine component, which activated dopamine receptors and that makes it a drug that you kind of want to take a lot. So there's addiction issues with MDMA. I've met people who used mushrooms and felt really terrible throughout the entire experience and don't ever want to use them again. LSD is kind of, I mean, that is a real commitment to self exploration. The trip lasts a long time. It distorts your perception of reality in a way that nothing else does.

For me, they've been really important and really amazing and really life-affirming. That's just not true for everyone. I tried to, this is also why I find this whole story interesting is this idea of a lot of these psychedelic researchers, they either had this experience themselves or they know someone who has had this experience. And so, what they want to do is kind of Sherpa these drugs from where they are now to a place where if somebody has a bad reaction on them, they're having it in the presence of a trained clinician who can make sure that they don't hurt themselves. As much as I believe in my body, my choice, and not incarcerating people for what they do to their own bodies, I do see a lot to commend in the movement to make sure that these drugs are used in safe settings.

Gillespie: You're writing at Reason is really a lot about human modification or kind of self-directed evolution almost. How do people, they have an idea of what they want to be like and then they pursue that. Talk a bit about, and you yourself over the past few years, you went on a particularly strict diet and workout regimen, you transformed the way that you look. You had always been what used to be called a husky person, now you're kind of-

Riggs: That's true. Yeah.

Gillespie: Rock hard and all that. What is your interest, and for libertarians in particular, what is the interest in this kind of motivational change of what you look like or what you think like?

Riggs: There are lots of sort of just these moments of awareness that happened as I was nearing the age of 30 in which I was kind of like, "Okay. This is a thing I cannot do forever." One of those was smoking a pack and a half of cigarettes a day. I was like, "I cannot do this forever." My father had a double bypass when he was 52 and had been a lifelong smoker. And so I was just kind of all these things were happening. I was like, "Okay. I can't do this forever." And then the other thing that I realized and that has become a fundamental, philosophical belief for me is that the world has very little interest in how long I live or how well I live.

As someone who believes very much in the phenomenon of spontaneous order and that you don't need a central organizer or planner to make sure that life happens. There's nothing in the theory of spontaneous order that says, "The world will not continuously offer you stuff that will kill you." For me, that has been at various times cigarettes. It's been alcohol. It's been food. It's been inactivity. It's been mindless forms of entertainment. There's no drug I've tried, maybe with the exception of nicotine, that I find as addictive as an Xbox game console.

For me, this was kind of just a realization of things. One, that there was no one in the world who was going to keep me from living a unfortunately short life if I so choose and that some part of me, maybe it's genetic, maybe it's just ingrained through repetition, really preferred a lot of behaviors that were going to shorten my lifespan. I don't know how I feel about living forever or even exceeding what's considered a long, healthy natural life. But I don't like the idea of someone saying, "He died young." And so that was that constellation of sentiments is kind of what led me to change things.

Gillespie: Talk a bit about your kind of career arc because I believe, and if I'm not mistaken, you first came to Reason as an intern. What year would that have been?

Riggs: That was 2008.

Gillespie: Yeah. You were there and then you went on to various other journalism outfits. You worked for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Give your interest in kind of self ownership in terms of better living through chemistry in many ways and a wakening sense of exercise and diet and things like that, your interests in policy. What's the grand narrative that Mike Riggs is building for himself?

Riggs: That's tricky. I mean, the initial grand narrative. I was an intern at Reason in 2008. I'd been a student journalist in college and turned at a daily newspaper before I left college. But the narrative for a long time was that good art comes from suffering and that the best way to suffer is to kind of self abuse. I was very much a fan of Hunter Thompson and in pretty much any other heavy drinking, big meal eating, writer from the 20th century. I just thought that that was the best way to get stories, was to do crazy stuff, to get ripped or hammered, to always write with a cigarette between my lips. A lot of stuff like that. That was kind of-

Gillespie: This is, if I can say this is William Blake by way of Jim Morrison what the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. Something along those lines.

Riggs: Yeah. I mean, basically, I found that way of seeing art and writing and creation very compelling. I struggled for a very long time with the idea of how can you have a happy, healthy, normal life? How can you be someone who gets eight hours of sleep a day, and is a good family man, and doesn't wake up hungover with bloodshot eyes? How can you be all those things and also someone who makes compelling writing? It wasn't so much that I came to believe that this was not true, as it was that I just found it utterly exhausting.

I went from Reason as an intern to the Washington City paper where my personal brand was kind of the insufferable libertine. I also wrote as a libertarian, but it was mostly [illiteracy 00:33:15]. I was mostly like, "Hey, isn't it fun to be reckless all the time?" And then I went to the Daily Caller, which had not yet launched, but I helped Tucker Carlson launch that and kind of developed a reputation while working there. It's very conservative today, but at the time it was so new that I was able to be someone who was also kind of reckless and wild. That was my "personal brand."

I think eventually I just found it exhausting and also it kind of got on my employers nerves after a while. That kind of eventually led to a revisiting and this desire to tell good stories, tell interesting stories, tell true stories, tell hopeful stories, while also leading a life that was not slowly killing me.

Gillespie: You also worked at Families Against Mandatory Minimums, FAMM. How did that play into your interests or your commitments?

Riggs: Yeah. I joined FAMM from the Atlantic. I felt just one step too far removed from what I have basically, the thing I've written about consistently at every journalism job I've ever had is drug policy. I was feeling kind of mildly frustrated. As a young blogger, I was in the habit of saying things like, "Well, if we just did this, we will fix these problems. If we just did this." After a while I kind of wanted to get a little closer and just get a sense of, "Well, what's keeping us from just doing this? What are the obstacles to just doing that?"

So I went to work for Families Against Mandatory Minimums as the director of communications there and got a front row seat to why it is so difficult to change, probably any law, but definitely the laws around drug sentencing for federal drug offenders. That was just an incredible wake up call. I mean, for one thing, this idea that kind of permeates most drug policy writing is we tend to look at somebody who's been incarcerated due to a drug offense and we say, "Hey, they've got kids. Hey, they've never been convicted of a violent crime before. Hey, they're neighbors don't seem to have a problem with them. Why are we putting them in prison for a long time? This doesn't make sense. They're not really bad people that you want to put in prison for a long time."

Working at FAMM, I came to learn pretty deeply and intimately just how little a defendant character or personality or beliefs or circumstances has to do with how long they're sentenced to prison. I mean, which is one of the biggest objections to mandatory minimums is that when you go, one size fits all. When you say, "X quantity of drugs gets you X sentence regardless of whatever mitigating circumstances you may be able to present to the court." That's why one of the reasons why they're so heinous. I mean, you treat the kingpin who's ordered the deaths of dozens of people and the dad who owns a pizza shop and grows a bunch of weed in his backyard to supplement his income, you look at both of them and say, "Your sentence is based on the quantity of drugs you have."

Gillespie: Are you optimistic about drug policy reform in America?

Riggs: Yeah, it's a great question. I mean, at the end of the Obama administration, I would have said yes. I would have said that he did not do enough and that the justice department did not do enough and that I was very frustrated by the opportunities that a seemingly reformed, friendly Congress missed because of partisan bickering. But that I was, for the most part, optimistic that things could only get better. With Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, I don't want to say that all hope is lost, but it is a reminder that whatever policy changes are implemented by way of executive order as opposed to signed, or passed and signed legislation, they are transitory. They don't have to be. Sometimes they aren't. But, for the most part, they're transitory.

I am wondering, I do wonder, what has to change? What has to happen? What does Congress have to look like? Who has to sit in the White House? For those two branches of government to re-visit the cascade of terrible drug laws that they've passed since, well going back to the beginning of the 20th century. But what are the ideal circumstances for that because a republican majority in Congress that seemed to be pro criminal justice reform with a democratic president who was pro criminal justice reform, whatever the allure of some great, bi-partisan bargain is to pundits was not there for them. Now that you have a unified Congress, and a republican President, a republican Congress, whatever allure there is to being able to take full responsibility for implementing some brilliant criminal justice reform. That also doesn't seem to be very compelling.

I do wonder. My optimism is blunted by my curiosity, I guess you could say, about what has to happen for any of this to actually become real.

Gillespie: What is the next story you're working on, Mike?

Riggs: I've got a couple of different ones that I'm thinking about. I will be meeting with my excellent editor, Peter Seederman, to go over them. But I'm looking at a piece about reciprocity, which is the idea that any drug that the European Union approves we should just automatically allow Americans to use as well because it's Europe not Rwanda and so they've got a pretty good drug approval process.

I'm also doing some exploration of the ultimate drug gray market, which is the research chemical market. Most familiar to Americans because of the K2/spice/bath salts epidemic. All of those things were created by academic chemists at universities here in the United States who then published their formulas. And then those things kind of took on a life of their own that became a global phenomenon. That is a piece I'm looking into now is kind of tracing how is that phenomenon born? How does K2 or spice or bath salts, how does that come into existence? Why did it come into existence? And what is the best solution for having people use safer drugs?

Gillespie: I can remember a couple of years ago when K2 or spice was a big thing. There was a great, I forget the newspaper that ran it, but it was a headline that said, "Fake pot as bad as the real thing." It just seemed to kind of sum up a lot of the thinking that goes into the drug war.

Mike Riggs, reporter for Reason. Thank you so much for talking to the Reason podcast. Any last, any message to your fans?

Riggs: Yeah. Be safe.

Gillespie: All right. All right.

Riggs: Be safe. That's always by words of wisdom.

Gillespie: Those are true words of wisdom. Thank you so much, Mike Riggs.

This is the Reason podcast. I am Nick Gillespie for Reason. Thank you so much for listening. Please subscribe to us at iTunes and rate and review us while you're there.