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The Heretical Dr. X

The Persistent Voice of Harbor-UCLA Psychiatrist Charles Grob Is Rising Against the Chorus That Has Made Ecstasy One of the Most Demonized Drugs in America. Have Its Potential Benefits Been Lost in the Din?

March 02, 2003|Mark Ehrman | Mark Ehrman, a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to the magazine.

A four-person panel convenes in a swank Los Feliz lounge in conjunction with the Silver Lake Film Festival. The topic: illicit substances in American culture. Sitting around the table are the kind of indie/alternative types one would associate with a festival such as this: an LA Weekly writer, a documentary filmmaker and the playwright who adapted the cult documentary "Reefer Madness" to the stage. They dress casually and make intimate references to drug use.

Not so the final participant. With a white shirt, dress slacks and his boyish face topped by graying hair, 52-year-old Charles Grob appears to be the odd man out. His tone and frame of reference are clinical. "Bumming out" is an "extreme negative reaction," for example, and an "epiphany" is "a positive transpersonal experience."

As director of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, Grob (rhymes with "globe") oversees the clinic's patient load of some 450 children and adolescents a year, trains the psychiatry residents and fellows, and teaches in the medical school. His cred at this gathering derives from having been the first researcher to legally administer 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) to human subjects since the drug, also known as Ecstasy or X, was outlawed in 1986. He also has been a vocal critic of research sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse on the dangers of Ecstasy and a proponent of the idea that certain hallucinogens may--for the right patients and under the right conditions--be good medicine. He recently edited a book called "Hallucinogens: A Reader," a collection of essays and articles (written primarily by doctors and academics, including many by Grob himself) that emphasizes the benevolent aspects of the psychedelic experience.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 06, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Surgeon general's name -- In a Los Angeles Times Magazine article on Harbor-UCLA psychiatrist Charles Grob ("The Heretical Dr. X," March 2), the first name of former U.S. Surgeon Gen. Joycelyn Elders was misspelled as Jocelyn.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 23, 2003 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 6 Metro Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
In the article on Harbor-UCLA psychiatrist Charles Grob ("The Heretical Dr. X," March 2), the first name of former U.S. Surgeon Gen. Joycelyn Elders was misspelled as Jocelyn.

Grob sets the tone for 30 minutes of discourse on the wrongheadedness of the U.S. government's war on drugs and how the objectivity of science has been polluted in the name of politics. Unfortunately, the event's organizers botch the planning and not a single member of the public shows up. "Just one of those things," says Grob, who has driven from his Irvine home.

Perhaps he is able to shrug it off so easily because the experience is a familiar one. This isn't the first time he's found that nobody is listening.

Ever since Galileo argued that earth orbits the sun, scientists have run afoul of prevailing political realities. Grob also sees himself swimming against a powerful tide. "In the 1950s and '60s, hallucinogenic treatment was thought to be the cutting edge of psychiatry," he says. "There was great promise that we had potential treatments, even for alcoholism and drug abuse, that did not respond well to conventional therapies. But the problem is that these treatment models have been entirely ignored for [nearly] 30 years."

During the late 1970s, a new therapeutic tool made the rounds of West Coast psychotherapists. At first it was called ADAM, then Empathy because of its tendency to create that ability in its user. Bootleggers cast about for something catchier. They called their product Ecstasy, which, according to Grob and others, is less disorienting than LSD, mescaline (found in peyote) or psilocybin (the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms). At the time it also was legal.

"What MDMA does psychologically is remove the fear of a perceived emotional threat," says clinical psychiatrist George Greer, an early proponent of its psychotherapeutic use.

As a public-health professional, Grob believed it would be unconscionable not to revive the investigation into the potential benefits of hallucinogenic drugs. He asked for and received government approval to study MDMA's effects on humans in the early 1990s. That limited initial study preceded by several years the rise of all-night raves, where teenagers and young adults often use the drug. At about the same time, studies sponsored by the drug abuse institute warned that Ecstasy causes brain damage. The wind had shifted, and Grob couldn't get approval for further studies.

Grob has complained that the government studies were "seriously flawed," and in March 2001 he told the U.S. Sentencing Commission on MDMA that the tests were "an egregious example of the politicization of science, which not only clouds our understanding of the effects of MDMA, but also undermines the credibility and integrity of the scientific process." Last year he publicly criticized research funded by the drug abuse institute claiming that a common recreational dose of Ecstasy can cause permanent brain damage and linking the drug to an increased risk of Parkinson's disease.

He continues to push an agenda that puts him squarely on the other side of the U.S. government's zero-tolerance line, believing that Ecstasy can help curb compulsive behavior in alcoholics and ease anxieties in post-traumatic stress disorder sufferers and end-stage cancer patients.

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