Like most of the substances forbidden in our free society, MDMA was accepted medicine before it became contraband. And unlike heroin, cocaine, and marijuana, MDMA was legal and legitimate in (many of) our lifetimes: It wasn't until the mid-1980s that MDMA, the active chemical ingredient in Ecstasy, was added to Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act.
Prior to that, therapists and sufferers of various mental traumas — depression and anxiety as well as PTSD — sung MDMA's praises as an unparalleled aid to therapy. The drug had many influential supporters, including East Bay chemist Alexander Shulgin, who figured out how to synthesize MDMA in the 1970s and described the state of unabashed openness that resulted after its use as a “completely magical place.”
Magic is happening again, right in our backyards. Ecstasy's utility as a healing tool for sufferers of PTSD and crippling anxiety is being studied around the world — including in Marin County, where a psychiatrist is recruiting up to 18 people for a clinical trial.
The only hitch is that you must have a life-threatening illness in order to feel Shulgin's feeling of total honesty.
[jump] San Anselmo-based Dr. Philip Wolfson's efforts to recruit people for his study made the front page of Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle, but it's an old effort. Wolfson is active with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which received FDA approval to conduct an MDMA study in Marin on March 13. Prior to that, MAPS has been trying to reintroduce MDMA to the pharmacoepia since the day the DEA banned it.
So far, MDMA-assisted psychotherapy has had remarkable success. 83 percent of veterans who underwent MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD in a MAPS-sponsored study in South Carolina reported being symptom-free — healing that resulted after just a few sessions, and that remained for years after treatment. Compare that to the track record of antidepressents — and the figure of 8,000 veterans with PTSD committing suicide every year.
Wolfson plans not to work with veterans, but with sufferers of cancer and other terminal illnesses who are suffering from crippling anxiety as a result of their poor prognoses. To volunteer, you can call the study office at 877-372-2692 or contact researchers via e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
MAPS believes that FDA approval for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy could come as early as 2021.
How does it work, and how does it work so well? The feelings of total openness and dissolution of the ego that Shulgin described acts as a sort of “honesty serum,” allowing the user — in the company of trained therapists; in Wolfson's case, himself and his partner, licensed family therapist Julane Andries — to work through trauma that they'd previously been unable to address.
“MDMA can help us experience awe, and that eases anxiety and depression,” Andries told the Chronicle. “Later, you can hold onto that memory of feeling vital, alive, happy and full of awe.”
Which beats grinding out the last few days on the mortal coil hooked on benzodiazepines.