From Assisted-Therapy Drug to Party Drug and Back Again

(This article was published in the November 2017 issue of VIP Club Scene Magazine.)

One of the many things that makes us human is our ability to empathize. With so much going on in our everyday lives, what we all ultimately seek are connections and pleasures. Sometimes, to relieve stress, we like to have a drink because it distracts us and temporarily makes us feel good. Similarly, many people turn to drugs to make them feel good. This practice comes with some controversy, of course, but one of the most popular “feel-good” drugs out there is MDMA.

MDMA was synthesized by Merck, a pharmaceutical company, in the early 1900s. MDMA is a chemical and stands for methylene-dioxy-meth-amphetamine. It was then rediscovered by a San Francisco Bay Area organic chemist named Alexander Shulgin in the 1970s. Shulgin ingested the chemical himself and shared it with colleagues as well. Once they found out the positive effects of the chemical, it began to be distributed amongst psychiatrists to try out with their patients. They reportedly found that MDMA-assisted therapy helps patients communicate and open up better during sessions.

By the 1980s, however, MDMA spread to clubs and the newly popular rave scenes. Ecstasy, E, X, and Molly are slang terms for MDMA. Ecstasy usually refers to the pressed tablet form and Molly to the loose powder, usually in capsule form. Because the drug was not being administered by trained psychiatrists on the street, reports of dangerous side effects began to arise. In 1985, MDMA was officially outlawed and listed as a Stage 1 drug.

In a June 2017 article posted on the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies website (maps.org), UCSF resident psychiatrist, Dr. Emily Williams explained, “MDMA is not the same as ecstasy or molly, which may contain MDMA, but frequently also contain unknown and/or dangerous adulterants.”

Many news outlets have reported on the dangers of Ecstasy and Molly. The stories usually involve a young individual taking a pill at a party or rave and ending up in the hospital. Many of these cases are the result of a mixture of substances—many times unbeknownst to the user. The pills are usually found to have had traces of other substances like bath salts and methamphetamine.

There’s a common misconception that Molly is pure MDMA or that it’s safer than ecstasy. Both Ecstasy and Molly, however, may contain just about any chemical or drug when bought off the street. It’s impossible to know what a pill or powder contains simply by looking at it. The best way to find out is by testing it in a lab.

“Oh, hold on guys, let me just leave in the middle of EDC so I can test this pill,” said no one, ever.

That’s true, but websites like Dancesafe.org, a “public health organization promoting health and safety within the nightlife and electronic music community,” sells test kits that can be administered at home. At the very least, the test kits can rule out the pills that contain no MDMA. The website also discloses that the tests are limited and can “only detect the presence of [MDMA]. They do not detect purity.”

Many of the pills in circulation are cut up—or mixed—with other chemicals or drugs. Ecstasydata.org tests tablets, powders, and other substances to find out what they’re made of. Anyone can submit a sample to be tested. Once the sample is tested, it is posted on the website. The sample’s origin, street name, physical description, how it’s being marketed (pure MDMA, molly, ecstasy), and the final lab results are added to the database, which can be accessed by anyone.

So, why do people choose to take MDMA, Ecstasy, or Molly? The answer is simple: Because it makes them feel good.

“It felt like Christmas morning as a kid: complete and utter joy,” said Michael* about his experience with pure MDMA. He took it at home with friends and it took less than hour to feel the effects. Overall, it lasted about 6 hours. “It makes you connect and have feelings of empathy,” he said. When asked why he thought this drug is so popular with ravers, he said, “It brings everyone closer together. It’s like you’re one big family and you get to share experiences and meet new people along the way.”

Michelle* got Molly from a trusted friend while at EDC in Las Vegas. “I felt tingly all over, light as a feather, and massages felt intensified,” she said. She noted that, “when it hits you, your heart rate speeds up. Some people freak out at first.” Her experience lasted 3-4 hours. She also noticed that, “since it was over 100 degrees I was chafing on my thighs and with Molly, I didn’t feel it at all.” Michelle believes that Molly is popular at raves because “it really heightens the experience. Everything becomes magnified.”

“The rain started to slow down and then it froze, like I was in the Matrix,” recounted Leo* who took MDMA while out with some friends. He remembers testing it first because they knew Molly or X is usually cut with “something, usually speed or meth.” Leo also described intensified senses. “My friends had me touch all of their jeans to see how each one felt different and I could tell the texture of each jean material was way different,” he said. “I think ravers like it because it makes lights look cool,” he explained, “dancing and touching feels good.”

When asked if they would take it again, all three said yes.

The way MDMA works is by releasing large amounts of serotonin, the “feel-good” chemical found in the brain. As explained by dancesafe.org, “This release of serotonin is what causes MDMA’s mood elevation effect, as well as the feelings of empathy, self-acceptance, and emotional closeness with others that so many people find valuable and rewarding about the drug.” Taking too much MDMA could leave one feeling down and/or depressed for a while because it takes time for the brain to balance itself out again, so moderation is key.

Another key in this discussion is empathy. As Michael pointed out, he experienced feelings of empathy. This type of observation has led psychiatrists and neuroscientists to consider MDMA as a possible treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders, and other traumas—again.

Clinical trials are in the beginning stages and remain highly controversial because the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) categorizes MDMA as a Schedule 1 drug. The DEA defines Schedule 1 drugs as “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

In other words, MDMA is still very much illegal. To put things into perspective, marijuana and heroin are also considered Schedule 1 drugs.

In an August 2016 article written for the Stanford Medicine News Center, titled, “5 Questions: Robert Malenka on Ecstasy Research,” Robert Malenka, MD, PhD talks about MDMA as a treatment for PTSD.

Researchers such as Malenka seem to want to finish what Shulgin and his colleagues started in the 1970s.  

“MDMA appears to be helping individuals with PTSD learn from their therapy and get relief from their often devastating symptoms,” the article quotes. Malenka goes on to say, “I hope that by figuring out how MDMA works in the brain, we will learn how to make new, better drugs that will have some of the same potential therapeutic benefits of MDMA while minimizing its abuse potential and any toxic effects it might have.”

In a 2016 TEDx Talk at the University of Bristol, Ben Sessa, a consultant psychiatrist in Bristol, Cardiff made a case for MDMA-assisted therapy. In his talk, he explained that PTSD or trauma patients, have trouble talking about the traumatic events from their past—events that are too terrible or frightening for them to process. To begin the healing process, however, Sessa explains that they must first be able to talk about what happened. He argues that MDMA “can hold the patient in a place where they can think about and access their trauma in a way they’ve never been able to do before…allowing the patient to see things in a new light, a positive light.”

Both Dr. Malenka and Sessa agree that MDMA should not be available for recreational use. Instead, it should be used as a form of medicine to help those suffering from serious trauma. Sessa’s TEDx Talk was appropriately titled, “Is MDMA Psychiatry’s Antibiotic?”

Still, it doesn’t look like people are slowing down. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (drugabuse.gov) “found that in 2014 more than 17 million persons aged 12 or older reported using MDMA at least once in their lifetimes.” That same National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that “this is an increase from 11 million reported 10 years prior.”

While no one can stop you and your friends from rolling at EDC, the least you might be able to do is get your hands on a testing kit to make sure you’re consuming MDMA and not some other foreign substance.

 

*Names have been changed.

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