The Washington Post: How the Drug War Blocked Research Into a Promising Experimental PTSD Therapy​

Summary: The Washington Post reports on new PTSD treatments for veterans and others in the U.S., highlighting how FDA-approved research into MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD is producing promising preliminary results. The article offers a brief history of MDMA and its use in therapeutic and recreational settings, investigates how the U.S. government’s scheduling of MDMA has impacted scientific research, and details the results of MAPS’ pilot study of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD.

Originally appearing here.

Since 2001, 364,000 veterans have received treatment for possible post-traumatic stress disorder. Some researchers believe the vets could benefit from a drug called MDMA. For 30 years, the federal government has blocked research into MDMA because it is the active ingredient in ecstasy, better known as the party drug that fuels raves.

“When it comes to the health and well-being of those who serve, we should leave our politics at the door and not be afraid to follow the data,” Brig. Gen. Loree Sutton, a retired Army psychiatrist, told The New York Times. “There’s now an evidence base for this MDMA therapy and a plausible story about what may be going on in the brain to account for the effects.”

Ecstasy first became popular among psychiatrists as a therapeutic tool after the Vietnam War. The drug, they found, made people more trusting and gave them the courage to talk about their pasts. They called it “penicillin for the soul.” Yet no real research had been conducted on the drug. In 1985, the Reagan administration placed MDMA on Schedule I, declaring it an illicit substance without medical value despite the objections of an administrative law judge.

Since then, researchers have had a difficult time getting MDMA for use in clinical trials, and federal grants have been hard to come by as well. A not-for-profit organization in Santa Cruz, Calif. appears to be the only source of funding for studies right now. “Ecstasy is an illegal drug,” a spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs told the Los Angeles Times. The V.A. “would not involve veterans in the use of such substances.”

Meanwhile, some veterans have been seeking out the drug on their own, desperate for relief from the psychological burdens of coming back from war. In a given year, 11 percent to 20 percent of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan experience PTSD, which can produce debilitating systems difficult to fully relieve.

One study, especially approved by the Food and Drug Administration and published in 2011, found that five out of six victims of PTSD were cured after receiving the drug before two sessions with therapists, compared to only a quarter of those who sat through the treatment sessions after taking a placebo. There were no serious side effects.

The study involved only twenty patients total, most of whom were not veterans, and it was the first of its kind. Scientists still can’t say with confidence whether MDMA could really help veterans, which, after three decades, is a shame — especially given these very promising initial results and anecdotal evidence. Yes, the drug carries risks; so do the commercial antidepressants that so many veterans take to deal with the memories of war. Are these risks worth it for people who can find no other way of living a normal life? That’s a question without an answer.