Should MDMA Go From Party Drug to Medical Treatment?

The medical potential is great. The problem is MDMA's reputation.

Leave it all behind and enter the show. Hear, feel, and see the music, all at the same time. You’re up. Oh shit, you’re up on somebody’s shoulders. You’re higher up than you’ve ever been, connected to everything present, past, and imaginary. Fuck yeah, does it feel good.

Are you drunk or on something a little different? Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, more commonly known as MDMA, is an active ingredient in ecstasy, a drug that is very much on the illegal end of the substance spectrum. MDMA alters normal perception by enhancing and boosting serotonin levels in the brain, resulting in feelings of joy, connectivity, and, well, ecstasy.

The father of modern ecstasy, Alexander Shulgin, brought MDMA out of the chemical history books in 1976. In 1986, MDMA was classified as a Schedule I drug in the United States, meaning it has no medical use and is highly addictive. The government considers MDMA as dangerous as heroin.

In Shulgin’s tests of the drug, however, users had feelings of elation, opening up the inner mind, self-revelation, and exploration—experiences that are not far from psychotherapy. Today the medical and therapeutic potential of MDMA and other psychedelics (like mushrooms) is well-documented. In controlled medical settings, MDMA has had positive results in treating post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans. At the end of September, doctors announced plans to conduct the first ever-trial in the U.K. to test the psychiatric use of MDMA. In the past decades, similar studies have been conducted at U.S. institutions like Harvard and UCLA testing the effectiveness of MDMA in treating cancer patients facing end-of-life anxiety and as a useful serotonin boost.

In 2007, a study published by The Lancet evaluated 20 substances based on nine criteria including addictiveness, bodily harm, and "social destructiveness." Heroin and cocaine were rated the first and second most harmful substances, respectively. Alcohol was the fifth most harmful and tobacco the ninth. LSD was 14th, and ecstasy was near the bottom at 18th. The rankings are at odds with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s current schedule ratings, which group ecstasy and MDA with heroin, while alcohol and tobacco don’t even make a showing. Granted, the prevalence of ecstasy and MDMA use is far eclipsed by that of alcohol and tobacco, which may account for their higher rankings in the study. It seems, however, that in terms of potential for harm, the U.S. government is confusing social acceptability with potential harm. Alcohol and tobacco might be vices, but they're not associated with drugged-out candy-kids.

Indeed, after the high of MDMA use, as with any chemical substance, comes the risk of a low: extreme sadness and regret. At an event this past summer, a 15-year-old girl died from a mix of MDMA and ischemic encephalopathy. But any substance can be dangerous when abused. (In 2001, 75,766 deaths in the United States were attributed to alcohol.) In early 2011, a study lead by Harvard Medical School researcher John Halpern conducted with $1.8 million in funding from the US National Institute on Drug Abuse concluded that, in controlled doses and settings with clean drugs, ecstasy does not cause any brain damage. MDMA's bad reputation may be hindering its potential to leave raves and fully enter the realm of medical professionals.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Chris Breikss

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