Examining Ecstasy

Ottawa Citizen
Friday, December 31 2004

Examining Ecstasy

“Bad trip” has long meant something other than a lousy vacation. But the shady past of psychedelic drugs shouldn’t dissuade the medical community from seeing whether such drugs have legitimate therapeutic use.

This month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration agreed to allow doctors at Harvard University to investigate whether the hallucinogenic methylenedioxymethamphetamine can help cancer patients. This drug is better known by its street name ecstasy, or “Ex,” as many teenagers call it. Users claim that it induces feelings of euphoria and peace of mind. The Harvard researchers believe it might also alleviate the intense anxiety that accompanies end-stage cancer.

Harvard has a rather dubious record when it comes to playing with hallucinogenics. Forty years ago, faculty member Timothy Leary, a psychologist, conducted a series of “experiments” in which he fed LSD to students, friends — basically anyone who happened by his office. When it became clear that Leary ingested a fair bit of the stuff himself, and was really little more than a stoner with a PhD, Harvard fired him, whereupon he became an international drug guru.

This time around, Harvard promises to conduct the experiments in a more controlled and clinical setting. It will recruit 12 subjects from cancer wards and give them relatively low doses of ecstasy, accompanied by counselling and psychological testing. An ethics review board has approved the pilot project. It’s a far cry from the free-for-all laboratory of Timothy Leary.

Drug abusers unfortunately give drugs a bad name. Opponents of medicinal marijuana, for example, often have trouble seeing beyond images of Cheech an d Chong. Or they fear that to acknowledge the medical benefit of certain drugs somehow legitimizes their recreational use. These are misguided arguments. Even over-the-counter medication such as Tylenol can be abused, but that doesn’t discredit Tylenol as a headache remedy. Admittedly, if Harvard scientists show that ecstasy improves quality of life for cancer patients, the study could have the effect of legitimizing ecstasy use — but for cancer patients, not 17-year-old nightclubbers.

In addition to the ecstasy study, the FDA has also approved an investigation into the healing properties of psilocybin, the ingredient that makes “magic mushrooms” magic. This study is already underway at UCLA, and the psychiatrist in charge recently told The Washington Post that the drug, administered to terminally ill cancer patients, has resulted in “amelioration of anxiety” and “significant and lasting reductions in pain.”

Relief of pain and anxiety in dying patients is a worthy goal, so the FDA is right to permit this kind of research. But the UCLA psychiatrist heading up the study has hinted at larger ambitions. He also told the Post the drug may even help “induce spiritual or religious experiences” in cancer patients, so as, apparently, better to prepare them for death.

Mr. Leary got into trouble because he thought spiritual transformation could come in a pill. Doctors have a duty to discover and perfect new treatments, but they should always remember that they’re not clergy.

An amazing editorial, Examining Ecstasy, about FDA approval of MAPS’ MDMA/cancer anxiety study, was published today in the Ottawa Citizen. MAPS’ Harvard study is considered restrained and Charles Grob is chastised for speaking of potential spiritual benefits!