MDMA, M.D.: MDMA Heals Veterans' PTSD. Now It's Got to Find a Way Into Pharmacies


Terrorism is alive and well, Americans aren't feeling any more “free,” and those WMDs never did turn up. But the War on Terror did accomplish one thing: After 13 years of conflict, America is closer than ever to legalized and legitimized medical MDMA.

About 2.5 million sailors, soldiers, and Marines went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. As many as 20 percent of veterans suffer from PTSD, most studies show (another 48,000 are homeless; look for the telltale desert camouflage backpacks).

Typical PTSD therapy almost always includes a chemical element: Zoloft, Prozac, Paxil, or other selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). The drugs are supposed to keep people functional while they undergo cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). These drugs also have powerful side effects and don't always treat the cause. And for more than half of PTSD sufferers, neither does CBT.

MDMA is a miracle drug by comparison. Nearly all of the two dozen combat veterans who underwent “MDMA-assisted psychotherapy,” including some for whom other PTSD treatments had no effect, reported “significant” relief. One, former Marine Nicholas Blackstone, says that he “found the healing that I needed” in his very first session.

This is what researchers, along with “fringe” chemists and advocates of psychedelics, have been saying MDMA can do for decades. Now others are taking notice.

MDMA could be legal again as a prescription drug in the United States by 2021, well ahead of marijuana or any cannabinoid-derived drug. But for that to happen, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which is directing the studies, is in need of money — and as usual, the government is in no position to support the troops.

MDMA is an old drug, and its healing potential is old news. First synthesized by a German chemist in 1912, the CIA tried MDMA alongside martinis dosed with LSD as an interrogation tool in the notorious Project MKUltra.

In the 1970s, after hearing others sing MDMA's praises, legendary counterculture chemist Alexander Shulgin figured out how to synthesize the drug in his East Bay home lab. He tried it out — on himself, as was his habit — and was an instant convert.

On MDMA, Shulgin found “a serene, gentle, rather strange feeling of something easing out of me,” he wrote in his landmark book, PIHKAL: A Chemical Love Story. “I feel absolutely clean inside, and there is nothing but pure euphoria. I have never felt so great, or believed this to be possible.”

Clearly, this was something that should be outlawed.

Psychotherapists used MDMA, legally, in a clinical setting for therapy with great success until 1986, when the DEA placed it on the government's list of most-dangerous drugs.

The movement to re-legalize MDMA began almost immediately. The evidence was always there — it worked on victims of sexual abuse and other trauma as well as witnesses to war — but now, 30 years later, there is more momentum than ever, says Brad Burge, MAPS's Stanford-educated spokesman.

There are a few reasons. Widespread public acceptance that marijuana has medical value encourages support for other banned drugs. Thanks to war, there is huge demand for a PTSD cure. And there's the fact that MDMA appears to work.

It's important to note that “ecstasy” is not MDMA. Pills bought at raves may have a small dose of MDMA. They may also contain methamphetamine, caffeine, or whatever else the renegade chemist saw fit to throw into the cocktail.

The MDMA given to suffering veterans was made in a lab, just like the cheap and abundant LSD that floated around the Bay Area half a century ago, and it's administered in a strictly controlled setting during “intensive” psychotherapy, Burge notes. (The South Carolina studies also involve a husband-and-wife therapist team, Michael and Ann Mithoefer; having therapists of both genders present during the six-to-eight-hour-long sessions helps.)

Medium-sized clinical trials could be completed by next year. The FDA could sign off on MAPS's plan for large-scale studies in 2016. That would put MDMA on track to be legal by 2021. But to test the drug on a few hundred subjects, not just a few dozen, MAPS needs money.

Drugs are made legal via a long and arduous process. For pharmaceutical companies with big budgets, it's just a question of writing the checks to pay for the studies. They're no help here: Big pharma has no interest in MDMA because, the logic goes, MDMA is a cure, not a drug you'll need every day like psychiatry's big-sellers.

It could take about $15 million to wrap up the FDA approval process in seven years. That's funding that could be made available tomorrow, if the right billionaire is found.

As it happens, the rich of Silicon Valley are mixing it up like never before this week at Burning Man, where MAPS helps run a “cooling-off” center for people tripping too hard, called The Zendo Project. Some Zendo volunteers are the same medical and mental health professionals who want to use MDMA for therapy.

Maybe the end of MDMA prohibition is one one trip away.

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