Al Jazeera America: MDMA and the Electronic Woodstock

Summary: Al Jazeera America explores clinical research into the therapeutic potential of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy to treat multiple mental health conditions. The article features an overview of how drug prohibition previously hindered psychedelic science, discusses the physical and psychological effects of MDMA, and highlights the importance of harm reduction for recreational users of MDMA. “MDMA is a drug about potential: potential for therapy and potential for misuse,” reports Lauren Ellis of Al Jazeera America.

Originally appearing here.

Scientific research into psychedelics runs an interesting current alongside the social environment that experiments with them. Take the 1960s, where LSD and its potential treatment for alcoholism leapt from the lab and became a hallmark drug associated with countercultural politics and the anti-war movement. Political pressure and backlash in the 1970s stopped promising scientific inquiry into psychedelics dead in its tracks.

But after decades of prohibition, psychedelic science is having a renaissance moment. Propelled by MAPS, a nonprofit privately funding psychedelic research, efforts are underway to explore the therapeutic potential of MDMA.  The therapy focus runs right next to a widely popular electronic dance music experience, where MDMA is part of the culture. Thirty-two million people attend music festivals annually and those experiences generate billions in revenue.  There’s growing concern over the number of drug-related incidents happening at festivals, and a need for accurate information to reach the masses.

MDMA is a drug about potential: potential for therapy and potential for misuse, and on this upcoming episode of TechKnow, we explore both sides. Here’s a rundown on what’s known about MDMA.

How MDMA works in the brain

MDMA is a unique psychoactive drug that has chemical and structural similarities to the classic hallucinogen mescaline and the stimulant amphetamine. MDMA acts on the serotonin and dopamine neurotransmitters. When taking an acceptable dose of MDMA, the brain releases more serotonin and generates feelings of happiness and empathy. MDMA stimulates the dopamine and norepinephrine neurotransmitters, creating increased energy and delays the need to sleep, which may explain why MDMA is a popular party drug. 

MDMA as a therapeutic catalyst

MDMA stimulates oxytocin and prolactin, which are the hormones of nurturing and bonding. This can help participants in a clinical setting develop a trusting relationship with their therapist and creates a sense of safety and openness. MDMA is a particularly interesting compound for therapy because it reduces activity in the amygdala, which is where the brain processes fear. It may help participants with complex PTSD revisit and explore their personal trauma without being overwhelmed by negative emotions. 

MDMA is not the same thing as Ecstasy or Molly

MDMA, scientifically known as 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, is a synthetic drug found in a white crystalline powder. Michael Mithoefer, a private psychiatrist using MDMA in psychotherapy to treat PTSD, uses pure MDMA made in a university lab that’s registered with the FDA. He has a special Schedule I license to obtain MDMA and use it therapeutically. 

Ecstasy, on the other hand, is the popular name for MDMA sold on the street. Because of the deregulated market, MDMA and the people who deal them have a financial incentive to manipulate their batch with dangerous analogues, like DXM, rat poison, and mephedrone. Molly used to be the keyword for pure MDMA, but even today, what someone thinks is pure by word of mouth could be misleading, and likely isn’t. 

If you’re going to partake, know what you’re taking first

Most of the harm from recreational MDMA occurs because individuals rarely have a clue what they’re taking. Groups like the Bunk Police, Dance Safe, and Zendo Project, are part of the harm reduction movement, providing testing kits and info to help inform and empower festivalgoers. 

There are other factors that compound the risk beyond the drug and its questionable content. Set and setting is one of them. There is a difference between taking pure MDMA in a highly monitored, therapeutic environment versus taking an illegal drug in an adverse setting – a packed club, limited access to water, loud blaring music, dancing for hours among strangers. It can raise body temperature and heart rate, and cause a heat stroke. Another risk is dual use, that’s combining recreational MDMA with alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and/or marijuana. Those choices can enhance the effects, but can also be dangerous without proper care and awareness.  

MDMA and future drug policy changes  

MDMA is still classified as a Schedule I drug, which means it has no accepted medical value and has the potential for abuse. The FDA won’t reschedule until there is substantial research data to suggest they should. There are clinical trials underway, spearheaded by MAPS, that are contributing data and exploring the therapeutic potential of MDMA to treat a wide range of neurological cases, from PTSD to social anxiety and autism. Despite the twenty-year hurdle MAPS has had to jump over to get this research going, the DEA monitors the samples in these independent and privately funded studies. No government money goes towards this research. Contrary to popular opinion, according to principal research Alicia Danforth, “the DEA has been quite easy to work with as long as the researchers are willing to take the steps to document what they are doing. When the DEA agents came to inspect our site, they were very professional and polite and everything they asked seemed to have a solid rationale behind it.”