Should MDMA be Legalized for Medicinal Purposes?

Shalom Life
Gideon Greenbaum-Shinder

Originally appearing here.

When someone mentions psychedelic drugs or MDMA, the immediate response is to think about ecstatic smiling teenagers waving glow sticks at a nightclub, dancing vigorously at an after-hours club to some hard-hitting, bass-laden electronic music.

One may wonder: where do these stereotypes come from? Surely pop-culture contributes to our stereotypical overview of these illegal compounds. The infamous Trinidad James lyric, “popped a molly I’m sweating,” or Madonna’s “how many of you have seen Molly?” comment, surely hasn’t helped either.

Meanwhile, our thoughts tend to be more sympathetic and medically based when concerning a cancer patient taking prescription painkillers or a mentally ill person taking anti-depressants.

The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is trying to change and improve this image and legitimately prove the many positive effect of various psychedelic compounds. “We are studying whether MDMA-assisted psychotherapy has the potential to heal the psychological and emotional damage caused by sexual assault, war, violent crime, and other traumas,” reads their website.

Founded in 1986 by Rick Doblin, Ph.D., MAPS is a non-profit research and educational organization that develops medical, legal, and cultural contexts for people to benefit from the careful uses of psychedelics and marijuana.

Shalom Life had a chance to speak to Ohio native Mimi Peleg, who serves as a clinical research assistant for MAPS, about their ongoing research.

Particularly, we asked the Te Aviv resident, and Director of Large Scale Cannabis Training for Mechkar, Israel’s federal government-approved medical marijuana distribution centre (which she helped create and develop after making aliyah), about monitoring the clinical trial that studies the effect of MDMA-assisted therapy on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

“Scientists have come to view psychedelics as the most powerful tool we possess in treating PTSD, radically changing the old picture of the drug,” Peleg writes in an article published by Greenbridge Medical Services.

According to The Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma (ICTP), she writes, an estimated 9% of Israelis suffer from PTSD. “While this is in the mid-range of PTSD rates in areas near Israel, it is three times the rate of PTSD in the U.S. and other Western countries. Israel’s high rate could be due to the many wars, presence of first and second generation Holocaust Survivors, and numerous other factors.”

Supervising and monitoring protocol, Peleg ensures that all factors are up to code in the testing process. Working with drugs that are often seen as unorthodox in the general community, I ask her what is it like to work under such scrutiny.

“I like it,” Peleg replies casually. “We want to improve ourselves, we know the world is looking for new ways and we want the worlds help. People will soon realize that our work didn’t cause a [negative] revolution, other than a revolution of health.”

She adds that MAPS is simply hoping for psychologists to be able to use MDMA as a controlled tool, rather than looking to legalize it and hold late-night dance parties. “MAPS envisions a world where psychedelics and marijuana are safely and legally available for beneficial uses, and where research is governed by rigorous scientific evaluation of their risks and benefits.”

Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, better known as MDMA, was initially developed in 1912 by Anton Kollisch, a scientist at the German chemical and pharmaceutical company Merck, while investigating ways to stop abnormal bleeding. In the 1970s, several psychiatrists used the chemical to augment communication with their patients. This practice ended quickly when MDMA became better known as a street drug; the compound was prohibited in the US in 1985.

Certain taboo’s and predisposed forms of judgement tend to keep support tentative for this organization in the mainstream; however MAPS is slowly making headway. “The people that were destined to donate to psychedelic research are doing so, the taboo is actually being turned around all the time especially now that this research has been featured in NY Times, ABC News, BBC News and many more,” Peleg says.

She also accredits founder Rick Doblin for these perceptual advances as well as their current funding. “MAPS actually got a 5 million dollar donation last year,” she tells me. The organization is currently conducting studies of MDMA and psychotherapy in five clinical trials around the world: Switzerland, Australia, the UK, Canada, and the U.S.

MDMA is commonly heralded by the reputation of it’s impure cousin, a street form called ‘ecstasy’. MAPS now has a growing statistical base to disprove common opinion that all illegal substances are simple poison pills to be avoided. In fact, Peleg says that “over 600 people have been treated for PTSD with MDMA treatment based therapy with an 86% success rate,” far outstripping conventional methods of treatment.

The organization is currently “undertaking a 10 year, $15 million plan to make MDMA into an FDA-approved prescription medicine, and is currently the only organization in the world funding clinical trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy.” They also make every effort to recruit Israeli combat soldiers with PTSD.

“MDMA-assisted psychotherapy is a treatment that combines psychotherapy with the administration of MDMA, which catalyzes the therapeutic process. So far results have been eye-opening: Four years after participants went through just a few MDMA-assisted psychotherapy sessions, results show long-lasting, clinically meaningful benefits and absence of harm,” Peleg writes. “This is especially astounding considering that the participants were all resistant to conventional drug treatments (where existing treatments are not always effective).”

Peleg is actually in favour of the slow road that these drugs will need to travel in order to gain public acceptance as a medical tool. She is quite passionate about psychedelic studies and concepts of tikkun olam, two notions which she has attempted to combine in her professional life. “Israel has a 9% higher than average PTSD rate, I cannot think of anything more important than lowering the stress levels in this country,” she says.

Many of these people are rejecting conventional treatment leaving them with very few medical options in the conservative realm. “For treatment resistant chronic PTSD sufferers, what have they got to lose?” Peleg asks, adding that “anything we can do to reduce suffering, we have to try.”

A small clinical trial published in 2010 suggests that MDMA can amplify responses to psychotherapy among people with PTSD. Doblin hopes that further studies will eventually lead to MDMA being approved by the US Food and Drug Administration as a new effective treatment option for PTSD. “Everywhere we go, what we’re told is ‘this is really important’, but the people we’ve spoken with were not high enough in the hierarchy to comfortably say yes,” reveals Doblin.

Peleg also works with coaching and introducing people to cannabis therapy in her work. There is an astounding perceptual change in these people, she admits. “In cannabis work, people are initially terrified, after about a month they are empowered, then they go into a place where they are really angry that this treatment has been withheld from them.”

Peleg describes the affect of cannabis treatment on geriatrics being almost miraculous.

“You can’t deny the power of community and simply feeling like being communicative,” she explains. Many people take issue with these sorts of treatments because they see the potential for abuse is not a
t the forefront of medical reasoning. However, Peleg repeatedly stated that caution is the name of the game for these treatments. “Cannabis is given in Israel as a last resort solution; one must have been being treated for pain for a full year to have cannabis as an option.”

Above all is, she encourages precaution when using cannabis for medicinal purposes. “We are growing as quickly and safely as we can but we do not want the type of scale up that has been seen in California or Colorado,” she explains. “Hopefully in two years we will have [Israel as] the first federal normalized cannabis nation. Those who have licences will be able to receive it from pharmacies like any pharmaceutical drug.”
Shalom Life interviews MAPS Clinical Research Associate Mimi Peleg about her role in helping scientific research into the medical benefits of MDMA and marijuana take place in Israel. Peleg speaks about the high rate of PTSD among Israelis, the effectiveness of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for treating PTSD, and the future of medical marijuana.