Bitcoin has been embraced by merchants from Overstock.com to neighborhood bars and pizzerias, and accepting the cryptographic currency is also proving to be a boon to some charities. Take the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. MAPS, a California nonprofit organization that promotes research into the therapeutic use of psychedelic drugs, MDMA and marijuana, raised $21,000 in Bitcoin in less than two months.
I asked MAPS communication director Brad Burge and communication and marketing associate Brian Brown about their thoughts on why Bitcoin appealed to their donors.
MOTHERBOARD: How did you start to accept Bitcoin donations?
Burge: It was really a result of a couple of things happening. Somebody just walked in the door of our Santa Cruz office and said, “I have all of these Bitcoins.” People are actually walking in the door and offering these things to us.
And then the next day, [Dec. 3], we were doing an AMA on Reddit with almost 2,000 questions. Part of this online community is these Bitcoins, and people were asking us over and over, “Do you accept Bitcoins?” So we put up our Bitcoin portal later that day. We didn’t go out soliciting – we’ve been responding to the demand.
Why do you think Bitcoins are so popular with your audience?
Burge: I think there’s a lot of reasons. I think, one, the fact is Bitcoins did become popular as a result of an online drug trade so there are people who are already interested in drugs specifically and are interested also in experimenting with new forms of technology.
There's long been a connection between people who use psychedelics on their own and the network engineer community. The history of the Internet is tied in very closely with the history of psychedelics as a lot of publications have covered. So there's this interest in experimental forms of technology that applies to currency and to [chemical] compounds, like the kind you can acquire on Silk Road.
[T]here's this interest in experimental forms of technology that applies to currency and to [chemical] compounds, like the kind you can acquire on Silk Road.
What do you see as some of the parallels between Bitcoins and psychedelics?
Burge: Bitcoins have really moved fast from their status as an underground, culturally taboo currency to something that is covered in Forbes and used philanthropically by a lot of people. Psychedelics have taken a lot longer to make some of these same changes.
But it's interesting if we can look on the increasing legitimacy of Bitcoins and the increasing legitimacy that psychedelics for beneficial and therapeutic purposes, that seems like an interesting story to me.
Brown: They're really about efficiency and efficacy. Because in the world of currency, Bitcoins move quicker, are not centrally governed and the fees and the costs associated with them are much lower than associated with Western Union.
The medicines we're creating with therapeutic use of MDMA are much more efficient [than existing treatments] – they cut to the point.
Both of these things are about being honest with ourselves and our culture. As the Internet gave psychedelics a voice, Bitcoins gave the Internet a wallet. And so people can very easily put their money where their mouth is with Bitcoins, and being that our digital voice stretches so far, our digital wallet stretches equally far. Using Bitcoins for international donations seem to be a huge market.
How many Bitcoin donations and Bitcoins have you received so far?
Brown: So far, just two or three people have donated most of the Bitcoins we’ve received so far. To date, we’ve received 31 bitcoins and cashed them out for about $21,000. So these two or three individuals are mostly interested in making a demonstration about what Bitcoins can mean.
There's been a real big movement in the Bitcoin movement to donate to different causes and because the Bitcoin community is very libertarian-oriented, the causes have not been the tradition ones, so that's where MAPS came in the scene.
The more traditional [nonprofit organizations] have been slower to get on board, wanting to see more legitimacy before they do and wanting to know if they can cash out and how to treat the donations in regards to what the IRS wants to know.
Do you exchange the Bitcoins right away?
Brown: We’re a nonprofit organization, so speculating on for-profit investments is not really what we do, so we cash them out upon receipt, and we use the only US-based exchange, which is called Coinbase.
What kind of receipts can you give for tax purposes?
Brown: If somebody was to donate a $10,000 piece of art to us, we give them an in-kind receipt that says, “Thank you for donating this item that is a painting.” So that's sort of what we're doing for Bitcoins, saying, “Thank you for donating this digital property that is a Bitcoin."
I will mention that so far, nobody has wanted one of those.
Burge: Bitcoins are primarily used, in addition to their being an interesting experimental currency, for their anonymity. The question of giving tax receipts for something people want to be anonymous is an interesting one.