Reset: New Film Explores MDMA, the Life-Saving Psychedelic of Love, Empathy — and Sometimes Death

Summary: Reset interviews DanceSafe Founder Emanuel Sferios about his upcoming film, MDMA The Movie, highlighting how increased scientific research, harm reduction initiatives, and public education may reduce misconceptions about MDMA. The article features an overview of interviews found in the film, and details clinical research into MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for treating symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety. “It is the first feature-length production ever to explore MDMA’s history, therapeutic useand harm reduction,” says April M. Short of Reset.

Originally appearing here.

“There were things that we did in Iraq that were hard to live with,” says Iraq war veteran Nigel McCourry in a mini documentary titled MDMA Therapy and Healing. During his deployment in Iraq, he started developing signs of PTSD, which worsened when he returned. He couldn’t come to grips with what he’d done, and he was overwhelmed with self-loathing. After completing a trial study with the entheogenic compound MDMA, he was able to find compassion for himself, and his PTSD has since subsided.

In another short film clip, Sara Huntley — a young woman with blue hair and shiny facial piercings — explains MDMA use has helped her connect more deeply with friends, and navigate some of the most difficult life experiences.

“I think MDMA has vast things to teach humanity about love,” she says.

19-year old Shelly Goldsmith passed away on August 31, 2013 at an electronic dance music concert after taking MDMA. She was an honors student at the University of Virginia, and her tragic death made headlines around the world. Rather than take the government’s approach and push for more strict prohibition of MDMA, Shelly’s parents say their daughter’s needless death highlights importance of more realistic drug policies in our society (watch an interview with the Goldsmiths here).

Nigel McCourry, Shelly Goldsmith, and Sara Huntley are three of many people whose powerful MDMA-related stories will be featured in an upcoming documentary released by Viveka Films, titled MDMA The Movie. It is the first feature-length production ever to explore MDMA’s history, therapeutic use and harm reduction.

Emanuel Sferios, the film’s producer, is the founder of the nonprofit harm reduction organization DanceSafe, which appears at festivals and raves offering on-site pill testing and realistic drug education to attendees. He said he decided to make the film in order to advocate for harm reduction as a public health alternative to drug prohibition.

For the film, Sferios has interviewed people involved with MDMA across the spectrum — from people who use it for purely recreational reasons to let loose at raves, to people who say it saved their lives, to the very chemist who discovered the chemical compound in the ‘70s: Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin.

In the Indiegogo campaign video Sferios explains that he was “privileged to interview Ann and Sasha Shulgin just five weeks before Sasha passed away.”

In addition to Shulgin, the film features MDMA experts like Rick Doblin of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), Neuroscientist Matthew Baggott, PhD who has headed up MDMA research, and many others.

Sferios founded DanceSafe in 1999 in response to a glaring public health concern he observed: imposter pills, posing as “ecstasy” and laced with all kinds of ingredients, were killing people.

“The Dutch government was funding drug checking services for users to help them avoid the imposter pills, which often contained drugs far more dangerous than MDMA,” he said. He described his first DanceSafe booth experience at a rave in Oakland, California as something he’ll never forget.

“We had an ecstasy pill testing station set up (using the same chemical reagent law enforcement used to identify MDMA) and a pamphlet on safety issues related to the drug, which I had written myself,” he said. People were very forthcoming in talking with us about their use. The first thing I realized was that most people had no idea that ecstasy was its own drug, its own molecule. They had never even heard of MDMA. When I asked them what they thought they were taking when they swallowed their ecstasy pills, most replied that the ‘good’ pills had a good combination of heroin, cocaine and other drugs, and that the ‘bad’ pills must have had a bad combination of drugs.”

Sferios was shocked by the “utter lack of even a basic understanding” among rave-goers about the substances they were taking.

“I also watched as a young woman walked around with a little glass bottle and a small spoon offering people ‘bumps of K,’” he said. “I saw teenagers lean over and insufflate white powder off a spoon from a total stranger, some of them not even knowing that ‘K’ meant ‘ketamine’ — and none of them knowing for sure that ketamine was actually what it was.”

He said this was the moment he realized the organization he’d started was more important than he’d even realized.

“It wasn’t just about helping responsible users test their ecstasy to avoid fake and adulterated pills,” he said. “It was about educating youth on what ‘responsible drug use’ meant to begin with.”

The organization has since evolved to promote harm reduction for various psychedelics, not just MDMA, and sets up harm reduction booths at raves and other massive events around the world. Sferios said in making MDMA The Movie, it’s been easy to get people to open up about their very personal experiences with MDMA, which he attributes to his credentials as the founder of DanceSafe.

“They trust that I will be making a truthful documentary, without sensationalizing the issue or being biased in either direction,” he said. “While MDMA has had tremendous therapeutic benefits for millions of people, it has also been greatly abused and has led to a number of fatalities. Telling the truth means showing all sides of the issue.”

Sferios said he decided now was the time to make this film for a number of reasons, one of which the fact that MDMA’s use has dramatically increased in the last three years. Another reason is the groundbreaking scientific research that continues to filter in to show MDMA’s unprecedented ability to temper the symptoms of treatment-resistant PTSD and anxiety. This is particularly timely given the epidemic of PTSD among U.S. military veterans, at least 22 of whom take their own lives each day.

“One of the most important things I learned [while making the film] came from interviewing the PTSD study subjects,” Sferios said. “I used to think that PTSD was simply a heightened fear response from having been in a frightening, traumatic situation. However, all the veterans I spoke to told me their PTSD was integrally related to their sense of self, to guilt and their perception of themselves.

Whether it was having killed innocent people — including children — in Iraq, or failing to save the lives of their fellow soldiers, their PTSD was centered around their inability to forgive themselves.”
He noted that government-approved, placebo controlled Phase II studies conducted in the U.S. have “proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy is the most successful treatment we have for this debilitating illness.”

“Even Rachel Hope, who was raped repeatedly as a child, had internalized her rape experiences to the point where she believed there must be something wrong with her for these horrible things to have happened to her,” he said. (Hope has also appeared on Reset’s podcast with Amber Lyon.)

“She carried this negative self image around with her for years, and says it was the source of her PTSD,” h
e said. “So in all these cases, MDMA helped heal these people by giving them, for the first time in ages, compassion for themselves. It allowed them to see themselves (not just their traumatic experiences) in a new light. This was surprising to me, as prior I had only a rudimentary understanding of PTSD.”

Sferios said increasing awareness about the enormous benefits of medical marijuana is helping to open the public mind up to reevaluating the potential uses of other banned substances as well.

“Medical marijuana and the prison crisis has also shifted public opinion away from 1980s drug war attitudes to a more public health approach, and we are seeing positive changes,” he said. “I think the public is ready for change, and my film will hopefully move the conversation forward.”

The film is still in production, and an ongoing crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo has raised about $34,700 of its $100,000 goal as of press time. The estimated total budget for the film is $500,000 and Sferios and his team are actively seeking investors for the project.