A leading psychedelics organization has launched an investigation of one of its board members after STAT reported allegations that she had taken financial advantage of an elderly Holocaust survivor and philanthropist who regularly used hallucinogenic drugs.
The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which is at the forefront of research on using psychedelics as medical treatment, said it is reviewing claims of financial elder abuse against board member Vicky Dulai, who was helping to care for a man named George Sarlo, her longtime companion. The decision is an about-face for MAPS, which previously said it had not investigated because no credible claims had been made.
MAPS’ compliance team will review the allegations, spokesperson Betty Aldworth wrote in an email to STAT. She did not explain what prompted the reversal, nor provide details on who was on the compliance team, what specific allegations they were examining, or how long the review process would take. “To protect the integrity of compliance reviews, MAPS follows the widely-accepted best practice of not discussing ongoing reviews,” wrote Aldworth.
STAT’s investigation, which highlighted the vulnerability of older people who take mind-altering psychedelics, found that a court granted a temporary restraining order against Dulai based on claims of financial elder abuse from Sarlo’s daughters. Further details of alleged abuse were included in a lawsuit filed by a court-appointed temporary conservator for Sarlo’s estate. Allegations catalogued in court documents include:
— Dulai introduced Sarlo to a psychedelic drug called ketamine as an “off-label” treatment for his depression, supervised an “intensive” dosing regime, took ketamine with him at home, and encouraged his use of other psychedelics including ayahuasca and MDMA to heighten his dependence on her.
— Dulai exploited her relationship with Sarlo to take more than $4 million from him, including a Porsche with a personalized license plate and $1.4 million to buy a house in Mill Valley, Calif.
— Sarlo switched from the estate-planning lawyer he’d worked with for 14 years a few months before he forgave the $1.4 million loan to Dulai for the house, turning it into a gift. And Dulai took Sarlo to at least one other attorney before meeting with the one who arranged the loan forgiveness documentation. These changes in legal representation raised concerns for elder abuse lawyers who reviewed the case for STAT.
— When Sarlo repeatedly expressed suicidal thoughts, Dulai allegedly offered to help him end his life.
Dulai denied the allegations and the lawsuit was settled earlier this year, with Dulai agreeing to return the Porsche, and she and her husband agreeing to pay $150,000 immediately, plus a further $350,000 on the house over time; her husband will return $190,000 he received as a business investment within three years.
In court records, Dulai claimed Sarlo’s daughters raised claims of elder abuse as a way to get closer to their father and inherit more of his wealth. Dulai filed her own elder abuse complaint with San Francisco Adult Protective Services after Sarlo’s daughters locked her out of his house and fired his previous medical team.
In response to questions STAT asked before publishing the investigation last month, Dulai’s lawyer, Terry Gross, said Sarlo freely chose to give Dulai gifts, switched lawyers based on a recommendation from his money management counsel, and was under the continual care of health professionals while taking ketamine.
Gross also disputed that Dulai encouraged Sarlo’s use of psychedelics. The Holocaust survivor was a vocal proponent of psychedelics and publicly heralded their mental health benefits. He chose to take the drugs of his own volition, said Gross. Dulai’s court filings do not address the claim that she offered to help Sarlo end his life, and Gross did not respond to questions about this.
The process around how MAPS’ compliance team examines complaints is not yet public. In February, the nonprofit detailed plans to create an independent review board to review possible ethics violations and oversee compliance reviews, but the board is not yet in place to oversee the review of Dulai.
MAPS has previously conducted other ethics reviews, including into claims of sexual abuse during a clinical trial. A patient with post-traumatic stress disorder was sexually assaulted by her therapist during a MAPS-sponsored trial, according to a civil court claim, and MAPS found that her therapy team violated ethical standards. In November, the nonprofit re-opened its review to examine the therapy sessions themselves.
MAPS responded to its initial findings by preventing the therapists from providing MAPS-affiliated therapy or being involved in MAPS-related activities. MAPS was not liable for its therapists’ misconduct, the nonprofit added in its public statement. MAPS has not provided details on the repercussions that Dulai — or anyone else accused of misconduct — could face.
“An appropriate disciplinary action will be determined based on the severity of the violation,” Shannon Carlin, chief of training and supervision at MAPS, previously told STAT.
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