Inside the Investigation: Can MDMA Heal Psychological Trauma?

Originally appearing at

For “Can a Single Pill Change Your Life?”, O senior editor Jessica Winter spent a year conducting many hours of interviews and research on the potential of MDMA—the main ingredient in the party drug Ecstasy—to help heal psychological trauma. Here she shares highlights of her investigative process.

O: How did you get interested in the therapeutic uses of MDMA?

Jessica Winter: A few years ago, I read a moving article in The Boston Globe about a Massachusetts woman who had obtained illegal pharmaceutical-grade MDMA for her adult daughter, who was dying of cancer and suffering terrible pain. It seemed odd to me that you could take what we think of as a scary street drug and use it to help vulnerable people. I wanted to unpack this weird idea and see how much sense it made.

O: Of the 24 people you interviewed, were there any standouts?

JW: My favorite personality was Beth, the underground therapist who uses MDMA to treat patients. She was funny but no-nonsense—there was nothing woo-woo about her. A lot of people speak about MDMA in spiritual and even mystical terms, but Beth talks about MDMA as a practical tool.

O: You worked on this story for a year. Did you ever get tired of it?

JW: I could have happily worked on this story forever. We’re talking about the brain, the nervous system, how we make and remake memories, freedom of will—consciousness itself. Fascinating! We’ll never figure all this stuff out, but it’s great fun to try.

In this short interview, journalist Jessica Winter talks about her experience doing the research for her in-depth and personal feature article for O Magazine on MAPS’ MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. She cites the 2006 Boston Globe article about Marilyn Howell’s (referred to in the 2006 article as “Diane”) positive experience with MDMA-assisted therapy for her dying daughter as the inspiration for her research. Keep an eye out for Howell’s gripping new book about her and her daughter’s experience, to be published by MAPS in April 2011.