It is a drug that’s typically associated with raves, parties and EDM music festivals; but MDMA – better known as ‘molly’ or ecstasy by partygoers around the world – might someday hit pharmacy shelves near you.
This week, the United Stated Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) approved clinical trials of MDMA to investigate its potential in treating anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions.
The trial is being funded by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) which has previously conducted studies into medicinal marijuana and the use of psychedelics to treat health problems.
MDMA is known for its euphoric effect, with users reporting a sense of calm and trustworthiness, as well as increased confidence and happiness. MDMA also frequently enables users to engage in conversations more readily and to be more open about their feelings.
It is hoped that these effects will allow patients to communicate more effectively with psychologists, and to gain insight into their mental health issues in order to address them in a meaningful way.
Researchers hope that the trials, which will be conducted in a controlled environment, might pave the way for its legalisation for medical purposes in a similar vein to medical marijuana.
The trial will be conducted in a psychologist’s office in California and will require patients to lie on a couch after consuming the drug under the careful watch of a mental health professional. 18 patients will be involved in the trial, which will be conducted over the course of several months. At the conclusion, feedback will be collected from participants to determine whether MDMA had any significant impact on their anxiety levels.
Unlike ecstasy pills that are found at parties, which are frequently cut with other substances that may produce harmful effects, only ‘pure’ MDMA will be given to the patients. In this form, MDMA does not produce hallucinations which are commonly associated with other drugs such as LSD (acid).
A Brief History of MDMA
The DEA’s decision to approve the trial reverses its previous hardline approach to drugs, which has been characterised by a zero-tolerance approach to illicit drug use. Ironically, it was the DEA that was instrumental in criminalising MDMA in 1985, following a review by the US government which identified it as a drug with potential for abuse.
The DEA conducted a series of hearings on the potential harms caused by the drug during the early 1980’s, however it eventually rejected a court’s finding that MDMA should be listed as a Schedule III drug under the United States Controlled Substances Act, instead choosing to list it as a Schedule I drug.
Schedule III drugs are meant to be ‘less harmful’ and to have medical uses. They are also thought to lead to low or moderate physical dependence, or high psychological dependence. In contrast, Schedule I drugs are considered to be the most harmful drugs, which are identified as having a high potential for abuse and no medical use.
But while the proposed trials may revolutionise the way that anxiety disorders are treated in the future, its possible medical benefits are not novel.
Before it was criminalised by the DEA, MDMA had gained a reputation as a popular party drug during the late 70’s and 80’s. But even before that, it had been used by psychotherapists to treat patients. In the 1970’s and 80’s, as the drug’s euphoric properties were realised, it was distributed amongst a network of around 4000 health professionals who began preliminary studies into the possible benefits of the drug in treating mental health conditions. However, the studies were quickly halted when the drug was made illegal.
The DEA’s recent decision to allow the trial of MDMA for medical purposes means that these studies can once again gain momentum. MAPS has already proposed to expand the trials if the first one is successful. And, if all goes to plan, the organisation has indicated that it will be instrumental in facilitating a $20 million rollout of MDMA as a prescription medication by 2021.
While the Australian government has not proposed any MDMA trials yet, the US study may be an important and influential first step towards legalisation for medical purposes in that country and beyond.