MDMA Still Irrationally Restricted, Despite Medical Benefits

It is perhaps common knowledge that marijuana, though not legally available for recreational use, is now widely used for medical purposes. Twenty US states have signed effective medical marijuana measures into law, as well as the District of Columbia, along with a variety of other nations including Canada, Austria and the Czech Republic. The legitimate medical use of another generally illicit drug, though, is not as widely publicized and deserves attention.

MDMA, an abbreviation for methylenedioxymethamphetamine, is most commonly known as ecstasy. In the United States in the 1980s, ecstasy was placed in Schedule I, a legal category indicating high potential for abuse, no accepted medical use, and complete prohibition outside of specially licensed research. This was despite the testimony of most experts at the associated hearings, including the administrative law judge representing the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), in favor of placing the drug in a less restrictive category. The judge in fact ruled that the drug did have an accepted medical use, specifically in psychotherapy, and only a low potential for abuse. He was overruled by the DEA administrator, and MDMA remains in Schedule I to this day.

The drug was similarly classified in the same year by the World Health Organization, and is also part of Canada’s Schedule I. In the UK, ecstasy was in 1977 placed in Class A, the category of illicit drugs with the harshest penalties attached to it and containing substances alleged to be the most harmful. It has remained there ever since, despite official recommendations for a less punitive status coming from the UK Police Foundation, the Home Affairs Committee of the House of Commons, and most recently the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD).

The drug continues to be one of the more common illegal drugs in many countries, which is the basis for a great deal of ongoing hysteria and draconian legislation surrounding the substance. Many lurid claims about its effects, though, have ultimately not proven to be compatible with the best scientific evidence. One study on animals supposedly showed serious long-term brain damage, leading to Parkinson’s disease, from a single ordinary dose of MDMA. It was later discovered that what had been administered was a very high dose of methamphetamine. The average risk of the use of the drug has been favorably compared by former ACMD head David Nutt with that of horseback riding.

The drug is currently being investigated as a treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, in conjunction with psychotherapy. As its name implies, PTSD is a severe anxiety disorder caused by traumatic, often violent experiences such as war and sexual assault. An estimated 6.8% of the population of the US suffers from the disorder at some point in their lives. Patients often have difficulty discussing these experiences with therapists, because the memory of such incidents will often trigger panic attacks.

MDMA is sometimes referred to as an “entactogen” or “empathogen,” meaning a substance that facilitates empathy. The drug tends to both increase feelings of empathy and decrease anxiety in the user. This apparently facilitates increased trust in the therapist on the part of the patient, as well as enabling him or her to examine traumatic memories without the associated anxiety attacks. Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS, which has funded much of this research, explains: “When they’re remembering this incident under MDMA it gets reconsolidated without the fear being as strong as it was before.” This has already led to impressive results.

In one study published last year, 83% of patients treated with only two doses of MDMA no longer qualified for a diagnosis of PTSD two months afterward. This is a dramatic success rate, considering that the corresponding statistic for a placebo was only 20%, and that these patients were previously classified as “treatment-resistant.”

Another 12 treatment-resistant PTSD patients are currently involved in a similar study in the US city of Boulder in the state of Colorado, and similar research is currently ongoing in Israel and soon to begin in Canada. MDMA research is not exclusively focused on PTSD; the US Food and Drug Administration recently approved a study investigating its potential benefits for autistic adults with social anxiety. The substance may also have potential in the treatment of drug addiction, which, like the other conditions mentioned so far, is associated with debilitating levels of stress or anxiety. Rick Doblin has been in contact with the FDA concerning the medical potential of the drug, and last year he estimated it would take seven to ten years before it is finally approved as a prescription medication.

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