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MDMA: From ReCreation to Therapy

Updated: Jul 12, 2020


3 4 Methylenedioxymethamphetamine: MDMA.


It isn’t a new drug: it was synthesized in 1912 by Merck pharmaceutical, who was trying to get around patent laws on a competitor's drug for blood clotting by making their own precursors. But Merck was a German company, so when World War I began in 1914, MDMA was nearly forgotten as other drugs took priority.


MDMD wasn’t tested on animals until 1927, and researchers didn’t notice anything noteworthy at that time, so they put it back on the shelf.

In 1953 things got interesting—the US Army Chemical Warfare Service tested it for toxicity in animals by comparing MDMA to mescaline, methamphetamine, and 5 other drugs, and they ranked MDMA as somewhere between a psychedelic and speed—like psychedelics with less anxiety, or speed with more sensory effects.

In the 1960s a drug showed up in the counter-culture known as MDA—methylene dioxiamphetamine. It came to be called the Miracle Drug of America in underground psychedelic circles. It was similar to MDMA, but more trippy—like LSD. As with most drugs, it was originally isolated from natural ingredients which people had been consuming for thousands of years to get high. In this case, the plant was nutmeg—that weird, semi-sweet flavor in eggnog. Nutmeg contains myristicin, which can be used to produce MMDA & MDMA. It also contains small amounts of Safrole, which can be used to make MDMA.


During the 1970s the drug war ramped up to a new level, fueled in part by Timothy Leary, who was doing more than just suggesting that drugs were overregulated, or that the government was roadblocking valuable research with false statistics. Leary’s biggest mistake--costly for both himself and for the rest of us who are now forced to navigate the leftover minefield of his war with the government--was that he told everyone to use these drugs without knowing much about them—he was telling people to simply “Turn on, Tune in, and Drop out.”


"Fuck the system," Leary was saying. "Take some of this shit and your mind will be blown, and you wont feel the need to play along with social norms and the culture of keeping up with the Jones’s."


The government wasn’t having it.

MDA, "The Miracle Drug of America," was outlawed along with a long list of other drugs in 1970 with the passage of the Controlled Substances Act—the government’s final 🖕🖕 to Leary, who had managed to get the Marijuana Tax Act thrown out only to watch Congress pass newer, tougher drug laws.

But MDMA wasn’t on the list of chemicals which were banned in 1970, and it remained legal for another 15 years, during which therapists sometimes used it to help patients overcome social fears and anxiety related to trauma. And its use was actually quite successful. But by 1985 the kids had started playing with it again, so the government outlawed it.


Many institutions ignored it after that, in favor of studying something less politically volatile.


Throughout the 1990s my generation was told that using ecstasy lowered levels of serotonin, and that this effect was probably permanent. The anti-drug officers and PSAs showed us pictures of brains with holes in them—the unavoidable consequences of using X.

But by the end of the 1990s, these lies were being debunked. Not just by kids like me who had grown to adulthood without suffering the promised permanent depression and swiss-cheesed brains of ecstasy use, but also by scientists who had jumped through the government’s hoops to test the theory, and found it to be incredibly exaggerated, if not outright false. Serotonin wasn’t permanently lowered with MDMA use, and any claims of holes appearing in user’s brains was junk science taken to the extreme.

So the drug warriors switched gears and went after dopamine in an article published in Science at the end of the 2002. They claimed that MDMA lowered dopamine levels, sometimes permanently, that it might cause Parkinson’s Disease, and that a single use may be enough to cause permanent brain damage. And just like President Reagan had done with marijuana—which he called the most dangerous drug of all—the government whipped up a study to back up their claims.

But when researchers attempted to replicate the study, they couldn’t. Not even a little bit.

Weird, right? So they went back to the original animal carcass to figure out what the hell had gone wrong, and they discovered that they had not given the animals in the test MDMA, but another drug, methamphetamine. Oops. Methamphetamine works primarily on dopamine receptors, whereas MDMA is primarily a serotonin enhancer.


The only slightly-logical explanation researchers could concoct was that the bottles had been mixed up in a sincere mistake—remember the last part of 3, 4 methylenedioxymethamphetamine is methamphetamine. Apparently a scientist has simply misread the bottle.

They had carried out the experiments believing that the animals were being given MDMA—a drug with low toxicity—and since dopamine levels had dropped, and since a few of the animals had died after only a few injections—of methamphetamine, not MDMA—they concluded that MDMA was both deadly and likely to cause permanent dopamine drops, which might suggest a link to Parkinson’s disease. It was jump after jump, all based on junk science. President Reagan did the same thing when he cited a study where Rhesus monkeys were deprived of oxygen and forced to breath heavy marijuana smoke for 5 minutes straight, repeatedly, resulting in brain damage. The damage was blamed NOT on the O2 deprivation, but on the marijuana. The government's track record when it comes to honesty about drugs is shaky at best.

The “Oops, wrong bottle” study nearly shut down another generation of psychedelic research. Dr Alan Leshner, chief executive of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, which publishes Science, went as far as to describe taking ecstasy as playing 'Russian roulette' with brain functions.

But the exposure of the mistake initiated a massive tide-change. Nature and Science, the 2 leading journals of the sciences, had been huge anti-MDMA assholes, but once this mistake came to light, they switched sides and jumped on board the MDMA train. Their support has been vital to updating public perceptions of MDMA and other psychedelics.


Check out episode 9 for my interview with Dr. Ben Sessa, MDMA researcher and therapist, Live 7.13.20.

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