Welcome to the Revolution
How US veterans are helping fuel a renaissance in psychedelic therapies and research
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked …” — Allen Ginsberg, “Howl”
It’s Veterans Day 2021, and I’m sitting in a lavish ballroom in the Hotel del Coronado in the tiny island resort community that sits on the western flank of San Diego Bay. The posh crowd skews model-hot and dozens of Navy SEALs and other US special operations warriors, veterans, and their spouses are mingling with business leaders, entertainers, artists, and politicians less than a mile from the Naval Special Warfare Training Center, where thousands of SEALs have completed Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training.
It’s exactly four years to the day that SEAL veteran Marcus Capone underwent psychedelic-assisted therapy in Mexico, which he and his wife, Amber, believe saved his life. Inspired to connect others in the special operations community to the seemingly miraculous treatment, the Capones founded Veterans Exploring Treatment Solutions (VETS) the following year. The nonprofit provides resources, research, and advocacy for US military veterans seeking treatment with psychedelic-assisted therapies; on this special anniversary, the Capones have brought together an elite crowd for a fundraising gala. The gala’s theme,“Strength in Numbers,” speaks to the organization’s ambitious goal of “ending the veteran suicide epidemic by helping veterans heal from traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”
“Many of the treatments for mental health care that are available to us and that we were told to do to heal are not working,” Marcus tells the crowd. “By giving our veterans a true shot at healing, we will pave the way for these therapies to be available for all Americans within the borders of our nation.”
When he medically retired from Naval Special Warfare in 2013 after completing seven combat deployments, Marcus began to exhibit symptoms of “operator syndrome.” A 2020 research paper in the International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine defines the condition as “the accumulation of physiological, neural, and neuroendocrine responses resulting from the prolonged chronic stress; and physical demands of a career with the military special [operations] forces.”
When I sat down with Marcus at his home in Coronado the day after the gala, I heard in his story a common pattern among American veterans suffering with TBI, post-traumatic stress, and other ailments. When he transitioned out of the military in 2013, Marcus had prescriptions for around 10 different drugs, including antidepressants, anti-anxiety meds, sleep aids, and other medications.
“I honestly couldn’t tell you how many different psychologists I went to,” he says. “It was the traditional Western medicine approach of antidepressants and talk therapy, and I wasn’t getting any better.”
Given his history as a football player and a breacher in the SEAL teams, Amber suspected Marcus might be suffering with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the condition found in many professional football players that’s believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head or concussions. Those who suffer with CTE often exhibit erratic behaviors and mood swings. After leaving active duty, Marcus suffered with persistent anxiety, depression, and frequent panic attacks.
“I was really just short fused and impulsive,” Marcus tells me. “I couldn’t focus. I started drinking a lot more, and I was getting more depressed. Some days I couldn’t even get out of bed. I would put on headphones and just lie on the couch or in bed all day and try to just block out the world. Then I’d medicate in the evenings with alcohol, and mixing that with some of the prescription meds just wasn’t good.”
Over a period of about 18 months, Marcus underwent myriad treatment modalities at several clinics specializing in brain injuries. He tried hyperbaric oxygen therapy, transcranial magnetic stimulation, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, and other treatments.
“I didn’t get better,” Marcus says. “I got more frustrated, more angry, and more isolated.”
By the fall of 2017, Amber had nearly lost hope that Marcus could ever recover.
“When the traditional routes weren’t working for us, I thought we had nothing left — no other options,” Amber tells me a couple of weeks after the gala. “When I considered leaving [him], I was hit with the realization that by doing so I could save my kids from the day-to-day struggles of living with this illness in our household, but I could be setting them up for a lifetime without their dad.”
“By giving our veterans a true shot at healing, we will pave the way for [psychedelic] therapies to be available for all Americans within the borders of our nation.”
Amber knew nothing about psychedelics at the time but had heard about a SEAL friend who traveled outside the US for an ibogaine treatment. Ibogaine is a powerful hallucinogen derived from the Central African Tabernanthe iboga shrub. For hundreds of years, the iboga plant has been central to the Bwiti spiritual tradition practiced in West African nations such as Gabon, Cameroon, and the Congo Republic.
Followers of Bwiti incorporate animism, ancestor worship, and Christianity into a syncretistic belief system in which the psychedelic, dissociative root bark of the iboga plant is used ritualistically in the initiation of adolescents into adulthood, to promote radical spiritual growth, to galvanize and stabilize communal and family bonds, and to resolve pathological problems. Participants in iboga rituals report strong hallucinations and a powerful sense of being able to see into their life, habits, and past with wisdom and clarity.
Bwiti Shaman Moughenda runs an Iboga Retreat Center in Gabon. According to the center’s website, “Bwiti is not a religion. It is a tradition; a spiritual path of self-discovery. […] For the Bwiti, there is a school of life. And Iboga is the teacher. […] Bwiti use Iboga as a tool, to connect to spirit and to innate truth. The medicine uncovers and accesses this truth that lies within each of us.”
Ibogaine advocate Howard Lotsof is credited as the first person to champion iboga in Western medicine. In 1962, Lotsof was 19 and addicted to heroin when he stumbled onto the plant’s substance-abuse-treatment potential by curing his heroin addiction with it. Lotsof went on to author many research papers on the treatment of various chemical dependencies with ibogaine, and his work helped pave the way for clinical trials and the spread of ibogaine treatment centers all over the world.
When Amber approached Marcus with the idea of going to Mexico to undergo an ibogaine treatment, he was adamantly opposed to it.
“It sounded crazy, but I didn’t have anything else,” Amber tells me. “I wanted to be sure that I’d tried everything so that if the worst did happen or I ended up leaving, I’d know I’d done everything I possibly could.”
Eventually, Marcus agreed to go to Mexico to undergo what he and others have affectionately deemed “the nuclear option” of psychedelic-assisted therapies.
“It’s ironic that ibogaine is a Schedule 1 drug,” Marcus tells me. “Because it’s not something anyone wants to do recreationally, and it absolutely has medicinal benefits.”
A Schedule 1 classification defines a drug as having no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.
The ibogaine and 5-MeO-DMT treatments that VETS helps veterans in need connect to are guided and conducted under medical supervision. It’s important to note that ingesting ibogaine comes with risks. It can cause cardiac arrest in people with certain preexisting heart conditions, and VETS puts applicants through an in-depth medical screening process to rule out patients with high risk factors. Individualized coaching sessions before and after the experience are also part of the process.
Marcus recalled his experiences on ibogaine as nightmarish — something like entering hell. But he also says that journey through hell saved his life.
“It can be a very unpleasant ride, but you get exactly what you need from it,” he tells me. He described his ibogaine journey as seeing “snapshots of your life like a movie, so you’re not asleep and dreaming, but you’re awake and dreaming … going through this journey of your life. And wherever parts of your life are causing blockages in your brain — maybe hanging out in your subconscious — you visit those on ibogaine.”
“We had friends ... just like me — guys who were struggling just as bad if not worse.”
That’s why the journey may be especially unpleasant for special operations veterans, who often visit and confront some of their darkest experiences and traumas.
“They say you can’t escape ibogaine when you take it,” Marcus says. “Like, it finds exactly what it’s looking for and pulls it out and kind of puts it in front of you. And you face those demons. And like everything else, when you face the things that you’ve been burying, you purge them and exorcise your demons; you clear the air. I liken it to wearing a backpack with heavy rocks. The more you go through the journey, the rocks kind of come out of the backpack, and by the end of the eight to 12 hours or more, you feel like you took all the rocks out, and you feel light again.”
Marcus and other veterans I spoke with who have undergone ibogaine treatments described experiences in which they confronted the “ghosts” of fallen brothers.
“Ibogaine is one of the best things you can ever do for survivor’s guilt,” Marcus tells me. “You’re constantly thinking about those individuals that either you could have saved, or if you couldn’t have saved them, it should have been you instead of them. And those thoughts become a loop.
“Psychedelics can break that loop by allowing you to visit those experiences and the individuals that you’re having survivor’s guilt about. And most of the time, those individuals are talking to you and kind of patting you on the shoulder like, ‘Hey, it’s okay. I’m good. Release yourself from the chains of what you’re going through.’
“One of the big things I always thought was ‘I shouldn’t be here. If I passed now, Amber and the kids would be so much better without me because I feel like I cause this whole life and everybody so much stress.’ On ibogaine, that loop goes away and you can build new neural pathways.”
Amber and Marcus say ibogaine not only saved Marcus’ life but completely turned their lives around.
“My life had been so dark for so long, and it was so gratifying and so out of the ordinary. My whole perspective flipped, and I turned to Amber and just said, ‘We have to share this.’ We had friends that were just like me — guys who were struggling just as bad if not worse.”
For months after Marcus’ treatment in Mexico, the Capones quietly ran a grassroots effort to raise funds to send other SEALs and members of the special operations community to undergo the same ibogaine and 5-MeO-DMT treatment. Then on Oct. 29, 2018, Chad Wilkinson, a close friend and fellow SEAL, took his own life.
“It shook us to the core,” Amber tells me. “I just felt like, if we would have been more open about sharing and spreading the news about these therapies with the SEAL community, maybe it would have given Chad the hope to just keep hanging on. Maybe it would have given him the understanding that he’s not alone.”
At Chad’s funeral, Amber looked around at all the same SEALs she’d seen at funerals for those killed in combat and thought, I don’t ever want to be in this chapel again. She had a bad feeling that suicides in the community would be the next wave of funerals.
The Capones formally launched VETS soon after Chad’s death, and in the few years it’s been operating, the organization has provided grants to more than 500 special operations veterans to travel outside the US to experience a five-day course in which those seeking healing undergo an ibogaine treatment and then rest and rejuvenate before ingesting 5-MeO-DMT, sometimes called “the God particle.”
A recent European study concluded that a single use of 5-MeO-DMT produced sustained enhancement of satisfaction with life and eased anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Originally derived from the venom of the Sonoran desert toad, it is generally smoked or vaporized, but little is known about how it really works in the brain and body. The care providers VETS works with use a synthetic version, which helps preserve the toad population.
Eric “Moose” Smith is the director of veteran mentorship at VETS. Like Marcus, Smith is a former football player and breacher who served several combat tours in the SEAL teams. Smith described his 5-MeO-DMT journey to me about a week after the gala.
“It’s a much shorter journey than ibogaine — only like 15 minutes or so. But when I think back on it, I don’t know which one had the biggest effect on me. The toad — the venom or whatever that I smoked — allowed me to essentially die. I lay back, and my last thought was like, ‘This is actually where they kill me.’ I was in such a trusting state, so I just lay back, and immediately, I was gone.
“It was like a bright light. And I went through it, and it became infinity. About 10 minutes went by, and I started to notice some sensations pouring back in. It was like I dipped into my true source and then whatever this world is started coming back online in such a way that produced an incredible eruption of emotion. Tears poured out in the most intense emotional release imaginable, then laughter and crying and sorrow.
“As I came back, I just collapsed into this big SEAL that was there to support us. He was there to grab me, and as he’s holding me, I’m just feeling all my imperfection. I’m just, like, this awkward, clumsy bag of bones and shit. I’m falling apart, and I’m just like, looking around at these people — the woman that served me the medicine and the doctor — and I’m just like, ‘You people knew about this?’”
Smith says his experience with psychedelic-assisted therapies made him want to commit himself fully to the mission of VETS and help connect other veterans in need to the treatments.
While there is no shortage of public attention and focus on veteran suicides, effectively treating the traumas and mental health issues common among American veterans has long proved an elusive target. The rate of veterans taking their own lives hovers around 20 every day, and author and lifestyle guru Tim Ferriss — one of the celebrity presenters at VETS’ first fundraising gala — points out that the size of the crowd reflects about two weeks’ worth of veteran lives lost to suicide.
Ferriss is moderating a panel featuring an odd couple of bedfellows: Rick Perry and Rick Doblin. Perry, the former Republican governor of Texas who served as secretary of energy in the Trump administration, is allied on the stage with Doblin, a self-proclaimed “old hippie from the ’60s” who founded the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in 1986 to promote psychedelic research. Doblin has been fighting to bring psychedelic-assisted therapies back to the forefront of American psychiatry since 1972, when his first experience with LSD inspired him to dedicate his life to becoming a legal psychedelic therapist.
“If you would have told me five years ago that Rick Perry — knuckle-dragging right-wing Republican governor of Texas — was going to be in the same sentence with the word psychedelics, I would have bet you the farm,” Perry tells the crowd with a charming, good-ol’‑boy drawl.
“That’s when it became abundantly clear to me that our government did a piss-poor job of taking care of veterans.”
Perry, who served as a C-130 Hercules pilot in the Air Force in the ’70s, says his interest in psychedelic therapies began with his friendship with Marcus Luttrell, the Navy SEAL who became the “Lone Survivor” of his four-man SEAL team in the infamous Operation Red Wings mission that claimed the lives of 19 Americans in a single day. Perry describes how Luttrell suffered for years with post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, and opioid use disorder while searching for effective treatments and healing inside the VA health system and beyond.
“That’s when it became abundantly clear to me that our government did a piss-poor job of taking care of veterans — that they didn’t understand how to help these young people,” Perry tells the crowd earnestly.
With support from VETS, Luttrell completed an ibogaine and 5-MeO-DMT treatment in Mexico last year. Around the same time, Perry allied himself with Texas State Rep. Alex Dominguez, a Democrat representing Brownsville, to lobby for Dominguez’s House Bill 1802. The bipartisan legislation, which became law in June 2021, directs the state’s Health and Human Services Commission to conduct clinical studies of psilocybin — the psychoactive compound found in so-called magic mushrooms — in partnership with a health sciences university and a Veterans Affairs hospital. The legislation also requires the state to research the potential benefits of MDMA — also known colloquially as ecstasy or molly — and ketamine to treat PTSD in veterans.
Dominguez is in the audience, and Perry asks him to stand and be recognized.
“Folks, that is a great American hero,” Perry says, pointing to a smiling Dominguez. “That’s the man that carried the legislation in the state of Texas. […] He didn’t have to do that. […] But he recognizes how important this is to our country. And you know, thank God you’re over there, brother. We may play on different teams. He’s a Democrat; I’m a Republican. But you know what? I don’t give a damn. This is about the future of America and the future of these warfighters.”
For decades, Doblin has studied the potential therapeutic benefits of MDMA, LSD, ibogaine, and cannabis, and he has been a vocal supporter of research into other psychedelics, including psilocybin, DMT, and ketamine. Last year, the MAPS Public Benefit Corporation — a wholly owned subsidiary of the nonprofit Doblin founded in 1986 — completed the first phase 3 clinical trial conducted with psychedelic-assisted therapy. The trial found that MDMA paired with therapy brought significant relief to patients with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. Of the participants who received three MDMA-assisted therapy sessions, 67% no longer qualified for a PTSD diagnosis two months after treatment, and 88% experienced a clinically meaningful reduction in symptoms.
Gul Dolen, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who was not involved in the research, told The New York Times, “This is about as excited as I can get about a clinical trial. There is nothing like this in clinical trial results for a neuropsychiatric disease.”
The MAPS Public Benefit Corporation is in the process of completing its confirmatory phase 3 trial with 100 participants, one of the final steps before the Food and Drug Administration can approve the therapy. The FDA has already designated MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD as a “breakthrough therapy,” and approval could come as early as 2023.
“MDMA quiets the fear processing part of the brain and makes it so that difficult memories from traumatic situations don’t trigger the same kind of fear and anxiety in the body, and don’t make people feel overwhelmed,” Doblin explains to the crowd at the VETS gala.
The drug also causes the release of oxytocin, the hormone that strengthens feelings of love and connection, so post-traumatic stress sufferers are often able to feel safe and comfortable while confronting traumatic memories.
“So people who feel isolated and have difficulty trusting others are able to go through this process of accepting themselves, accepting others, feeling trust in the therapist,” Doblin explains. “Because the key part of the therapy is this sense of safety, this therapeutic alliance that you can work with such difficult experiences in support, and not be overwhelmed, that you can, in a sense, lose control of the ways in which you’ve kept yourself in check but never have been able to fully put the memories in the past. And so you can let them up for the first time.”
Doblin says MDMA also produces new neural pathways and connections, especially in the prosocial areas of the brain. So with just a few therapy sessions, people learn how to heal themselves and keep getting better on their own.
Cognitive behavioral therapy and other forms of talk or group therapy coupled with existing FDA-approved pharmaceuticals are among some of the most common treatment modalities in the VA, and many of the veterans who find their way to alternative therapies such as psychedelics often do so after becoming disillusioned with the lack of efficacy offered by the top-down, one-size-fits-all approach to medicine offered through the Veterans Health Administration.
“We are in a psychedelic Renaissance, and not just in the United States, but around the world.”
John Krystal, then chairman of psychiatry at Yale University and a director at the VA’s National Center for PTSD, told The Washington Post in 2017, “If you’re a combat veteran with multiple tours of duty, the chance of a good response to these drugs is 1 in 3, maybe lower. That’s why there’s so much frustration and interest in finding something that works better.”
Doblin says the fundamental difference between MDMA and traditional medications is that those traditional medications are about controlling symptoms rather than addressing the cause.
“They’re about having a medicine that you take on a daily basis,” Doblin says. “Our whole thing is different than that. It’s a few sets of sessions, to go deep into the experience to work through it, and then learn how to continue to heal yourself on your own after the therapy is over.”
As one of the largest federal bureaucracies, the VA is still constrained by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 — the legislation signed by President Richard Nixon in the early days of his administration’s newly declared “War on Drugs.” The CSA classifies many of the organic and chemical compounds veterans are now seeking out and using in controlled environments to great effect as strictly regulated Schedule 1 substances.
Before Nixon declared Dr. Timothy Leary “the most dangerous man in America,” the former Harvard psychology lecturer had been a respected, mainstream academic. His research in the 1960s studied the therapeutic effects of LSD and psilocybin. But as Leary grew more radical, his anti-establishment, revolutionary views became the ultimate liability for psychedelic researchers.
Once psychedelics became associated with the counterculture movement, Nixon began to close the door on psychedelic research right when it was on the verge of revolutionizing Western psychiatry and medicine. Journalist Michael Pollan maps the history and evolution of psychedelic research in the US in his acclaimed 2018 book How To Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.
“Psychedelics were nourishing the counterculture,” Pollan writes in How To Change Your Mind, “and the counterculture was sapping the willingness of America’s young to fight. The Nixon administration sought to blunt the counterculture by attacking its neurochemical infrastructure.”
“We wiped out psychedelic research in the US — and all over the world really — through the international drug control treaties,” Doblin tells me the night before the gala over dinner at the Hotel del Coronado. Doblin believes that US military veterans in search of healing are helping to fuel a psychedelic rebirth.
Psychedelic research in the US began its rise in the 1950s, slowly gaining speed before peaking in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when funding began to dry up in the wake of the politicization and cultural stigmatization of psychedelics. Doblin says that in just the last few years, research on psychedelic therapies has reached a level about four times the amount back in those peak years.
“We are in a psychedelic renaissance, and not just in the United States, but around the world,” Doblin tells me.
MAPS, which funds its Public Benefit Corporation’s research efforts, has raised around $50 million in donations in the last two years alone. Those are good numbers, but Doblin is quick to point out that the roughly 400 for-profit psychedelic companies in existence have raised more than $1.5 billion for psychedelics-related enterprises in recent years.
Johns Hopkins; Yale; the University of California, Berkeley; and Mount Sinai Hospital in New York have all recently established psychedelic research divisions or are planning to do so. In 2020, Oregon voters approved a measure that made the state the first in the nation to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic use, and cities such as Denver, Oakland in California, and Washington have also decriminalized the drug.
Psychedelic researchers like Dr. William Richards, a psychologist at Johns Hopkins, are picking up where they left off. Richards was part of a cohort of researchers working on the cutting edge of psychedelic studies at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center before societal forces brought psychedelic research in the US to a grinding halt around 1977.
“We thought this was the most incredible frontier in psychiatry,” Richards said in Pollan’s How To Change Your Mind. “We would all sit around the conference table talking about how we were going to train the hundreds if not thousands of therapists that would be needed to do this work. And look, we’re having the same conversation again today.”
From PTSD, depression, and substance abuse treatment, to helping couples working through relationship problems and cancer patients coping with end-of-life anxiety, psychedelic-assisted therapies are again regarded by many to be “the most incredible frontier in psychiatry,” and American military veterans are a key constituency in the movement to revolutionize Western medicine with the use of psychedelic-assisted therapies.
“We have a great opportunity to literally change the course of the world,” Rick Perry tells the crowd on this Veterans Day. “These compounds have the opportunity to change the trajectory that we’re on.”
This article first appeared in the Summer 2022 print edition of The Forward Observer.