MDMA Turns 100 Years Old, Still Faces Stereotypes

On an unknown date in 1912, Dr. Anton Köllisch of the Merck Pharmaceutical Company was working on creating a new blood-clotting medication. During his research, he discovered a string of new chemicals, one of which was named 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine, or MDMA.

At the time, neither Dr. Köllisch or Merck were aware of the drug’s psychoactive effects, which can include intense euphoria, reduced fear, anxiety, and aggression, increased energy, and visual distortions. It was these subjective effects, however, that caught the attention of the U.S. government, and they decided to take a closer look at the drug. By 1953, the U.S. Army Chemical Center was testing MDMA as a weapon for espionage.

The medical community was also interested in the drug, though for far less self-serving reasons. The  first published study of MDMA in humans, authored by Alexander Shulgin and David Nichols, appeared in 1978 and for the first time, doctors learned of the drug’s potential as a therapeutic tool. Over the next seven years, psychiatrists would conduct over 1,000 clinical sessions of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy.

Unfortunately, during this time, MDMA also made its way into the black market. In 1985, the DEA reacted to widespread recreational by classifying MDMA as Schedule 1, a distinction normally reserved for drugs deemed to have no medical uses and a high potential for abuse. Despite expert testimony and court recommendations, it became illegal to make or possess MDMA, so research into its therapeutic value all but disappeared.

In 1986, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) set out to make MDMA-assisted psychotherapy a legally available treatment, and research has moved forward doggedly since then. Now, one hundred years after its creation, researchers and therapists are rediscovering the potential of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy to transform the lives of men and women suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Care2 recently had the opportunity to talk with Brad Burge, MAPS’ Director of Communications about how far MDMA research has come and the legal challenges holding it back.

Care2: Most people assume MDMA is a dangerous, illegal drug. What are we missing?

Burge: “A lot of people make the mistake of confusing pure MDMA with illegally manufactured ‘ecstasy‘ or ‘molly’. While the FDA has determined that pure MDMA is safe for use in clinical trials, black market substitutes often contain toxic adulterants. MDMA has now been administered to nearly 550 participants in clinical research settings, without a single negative side effect happening as a result of the drug.”

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Care2: How is MDMA being used to treat those suffering from PTSD?

Burge: “It’s not the MDMA alone, but how it is used in combination with psychotherapy, that can help people suffering from PTSD. MDMA can actually increase the effectiveness of psychotherapy, allowing people with PTSD to discuss their painful memories openly and honestly.  Psychiatrists and therapists have long recognized MDMA’s ability to decrease fear and defensiveness while increasing trust and empathy. MDMA also causes the release of hormones associated with trust and bonding, which may also help enhance therapy.

“MDMA-assisted psychotherapy is not like other pharmaceutical treatments for PTSD, in which people have to use drugs for months or even years and still don’t feel better. With MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, MDMA is only administered a small number of times, and the benefits can last. In fact, 83% of subjects with severe PTSD in a recent clinical trial no longer qualified for PTSD after MDMA-assisted psychotherapy–and those benefits continued for an average of 3½ years of more. These people had suffered from PTSD for an average of 19 years.”

Care2: What is MAPS doing now to help get MDMA back on the table as a therapeutic drug?

Burge: “MAPS is now working closely with the FDA and other agencies around the world to conduct clinical trials into the safety and effectiveness of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD. We get no support from pharmaceutical companies or government agencies, so making MDMA-assisted psychotherapy available to the people that need it requires persistence, donations, and a lot of hard work. It’s exciting to be part of a field that’s transforming a banned chemical into a therapeutic tool through meticulous scientific research and public education.”

Learn how you can take action to help make MDMA-assisted psychotherapy a legally available prescription treatment.

Related Reading:

Ecstasy, (Yes, The Club Drug) As A Treatment For Autism?

9/11-Related PTSD Still Still Haunts Thousands

Study: Can LSD Treat Alcohol Addiction?


Ruth R.
Ruth R5 years ago

The article says that it is used only a few times at very low doses. As long as this is totally the patient's choice for every patient -- and every patient gets to read and know about the mdma before using this substance then that does not sound that bad.
The questions are 1. what are the side effects? 2. What if the patient has an adverse reaction -- if there a way to get the mdma out -- or to neutralize the med?
3. Where are the studies on this?

This is only one article.

Ruth R.
Ruth R5 years ago

The whole thing is that people have other methods to getting better -- that have long-term studies.

Ruth R.
Ruth R5 years ago

The article mentions only one or two studies. MDMA has no long term longitudinal studies because this MDMA has only recently been used.
People do not know what the true long-term effects are on patients.
MDMA -- if used -- may not be good for all people, some who may or may not have side effects.

MDMA is a risk -- and may need more studies -- though some people may choose to be part of the experiment -- by taking the MDMA.

Kenneth L.
Kenneth L6 years ago

Note: don't attack me personally for posting quotes of what several professionals say:

"Almost every major psychiatric construct (disorder) is seen as being of questionable validity by a vocal group within the field itself or outside it. This includes post traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, and even schizophrenia" Dr. John Sorboro, Psychiatrist

"The vast majority of psychiatric drugs create psychological and physical dependency" Dr. Fred A. Baughman, Neurologist

"The (FDA) advisory panels that review (psychiatric) drugs, most of these people are direct recipients from, usually, the drug understudy, the company that's submitting the drug (for approval), and they waive the conflicts (of interest) most of the time. So it's pretty pervasive and quite insidious" Richard Jaffe, Attorney

"Some of the side-effects (of psychiatric drugs) that have become a concern lately are suicide, increased risk of suicide, increased risk of homicide... " Dr. Matt Irwin, M.D

"They use what I call 'statistical contortionism', basically just skew the numbers, make everything look fantastic, you hide the bad numbers". Shane Ellison, former drug research chemist, Eli Lilly

Will Rogers
Will Rogers6 years ago

I'd heard it was used in the first world war, supposedly the 'courage' of the time given to soldiers to calm them down and relax them on the battlefield. Apparently the cause of the Christmas day football match in no mans land between the English and the Germans. (3-2 to the English) later it became our party drug with strobe lights and lasers taking the place of tracer bullets and explosions, yeah..make love not war. That's why we call it ecstasy. MDMA is a beautiful drug! It makes you not only love people, but like them as well! With open adoration. And admiration, it also takes away your inhibitions and turns you into a good dancer.

marc horton
marc horton6 years ago

huh interesting...

John powers
John filipiak6 years ago

It's nice that most comments here are at least grateful for the knowledge presented here. Sad some of you express knee jerk opinions that imply you didn't even read the article.
The DEA is not a medical organization in any way, there are no doctors on staff, they are strictly an arbitrary law enforcement organization created through an executive order in July 1973 by President Richard Nixon.

Terry Vanderbush
Terry V6 years ago


Gloria picchetti
Gloria picchetti6 years ago

MDMA is ecstacy.

Danuta Watola
Danuta W6 years ago

Interesting post. Thanks.