Ecstasy Study Questions Drugs Longer-Term Effects

Originally appearing at SANTA CRUZ — New research suggests that the drug Ecstasy — used on its own — does not have residual effects on brain performance, according to a study published this week in the journal Addiction. The Santa Cruz-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies contributed $15,000 for an initial 2004 study on Ecstasy use. That work led to a $1.8 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse that was spearheaded by John Halpern of Harvard Medical School. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies has been conducting research on potential use of Ecstasy to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, and researchers said the new study likely would prompt more research and understanding of the drug. “I think this really provides some important new information for people to understand,” Halpern said Wednesday from Belmont, Mass. “This isn’t saying the drug is harm-free. But let’s not oversell what the risks are and what they’re not.” Peter Nichols, chairman of the Santa Cruz County Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission, said he hoped the study would not encourage people to take Ecstasy or other illegal drugs. “If there’s a medicinal value in it, I’m sure that it will get sorted out. But hopefully it won’t be spun in some way to get youth to try it,” Nichols said. “The county has enough trouble trying to help out the addicts that we have already.” The study started when a member of the association for psychedelic Advertisement studies from Salt Lake City talked to the association about a group of Ecstasy users involved in all-night dance parties in Utah. The users were typically members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints or nonmembers who also did not drink or take other drugs, Halpern said. Around Salt Lake City, the study whittled 1,500 prospective participants to 52 Ecstasy users and 59 non-users from age 18 to 45. Each participant had taken Ecstasy at least 20 times in their life with a median of 75 times, Halpern said. However, participants had minimal exposure to other drugs or alcohol. Ecstasy was not on a list of forbidden drugs at the time, researchers said. The distinction of participants who only used Ecstasy was important because researchers said that previous studies were muddled. Participants had used other drugs, and the studies that showed harmful effects of Ecstasy could have been influenced by other drugs and factors. “The vast majority had used cocaine or marijuana, and it was very hard to tell if it was that or Ecstasy that caused the problems,” said Brad Burge of the Santa Cruz association. Also, the control group in the new study attended the same all-night dance parties as the Ecstasy users, so they too were exposed to hydration issues and hours of physical activity. Each participant was tested for drug use several times to ensure they were honest about their use or sobriety in the five-year study, Halpern said. A psychiatrist interviewed each person several times and they were tested on problem solving, spatial organization and other topics. The study, which was peer-reviewed, concluded that “marked residual cognitive effects” were not found in Ecstasy users. The drug can offer a euphoric feeling for three hours or more, but other research points out several hazards in the drug’s short-term use. The web page of UC Santa Cruz’s Student Health Center, for example, states that heatstroke is the most common cause of injury or death related to the drug in recreational use. Users often dance in hot places for hours without rest or fluids. Depression can also sink in the day after taking Ecstasy as serotonin levels dive, and the drug can be laced with other drugs. It can also be addictive. Burge said the new study is likely to be a launching pad for more research on the consequences and potential benefits of Ecstasy. The association of psychedelic studies has been conducting research on potential uses of the ingredients in Ecstasy for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and other disorders. The Addiction study is titled, “Residual neurocognitive features of long-term Ecstasy users with minimal exposure to other drugs.” Burge and others are quick to point out that none of the research is intended to condone recreational drug use. Also, Ecstasy users in Santa Cruz County and elsewhere typically do not use Ecstasy only, so the drug’s effects aren’t necessarily harmless in the real world, researchers said. “We certainly don’t want to be promoting recreational illicit drug use,” Burge said. “You never know what’s in it.” Burge and Halpern said they valued the $1.8 million grant for the study from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Much of the money was spent on the research team’s hours of work and lab testing for drug use, Halpern said. Addiction is an international academic journal published in London. Locally, authorities said Ecstasy use appears to be low compared with other drugs. Rudy Escalante, Watsonville police deputy chief and a board member at the drug and alcohol treatment center Janus, said other drugs are more common. Meth, marijuana, alcohol, cocaine and heroin are the big five, Escalante said. For information on the study, visit The Santa Cruz Sentinel speaks with Dr. John Halpern of Harvard University/McLean Hospital, MAPS Communication and Education Associate Brad Burge, and local policymakers about the implications of Dr. Halpern’s new study of the risks of recreational Ecstasy use. After correcting for a number of methodological flaws in previous studies, Dr. Halpern and his team found that the cognitive risks of heavy, long-term Ecstasy are significantly less than previously believed, highlighting the need for a new series of careful investigations into the risks and benefits of the drug. The article also appeared in the San Jose Mercury News.