If you were born sometime in the late 80s or early 90s, chances are you had the opportunity to dabble in the rave scene. Hardcore EDM, rainbow tutus, and plenty of Vick’s VapoRub to go around. Oh, and of course… those colorful little pills that made us feel so good. For those who missed out on the good old rave days, those little pills were typically ecstasy – a psychoactive drug that, when used recreationally, heightens sensations while inducing intense feelings of euphoria and empathy. Ecstasy was originally developed by Merck pharmaceutical company in 1912, and was known (in its original form) as MDMA. The US Army began to utilize the drug in 1953 as a component of psychological warfare tests. The drug resurfaced in the mid-1960s, when it was used by psychiatrists as a psychotherapy medication geared towards decreasing inhibitions. It wasn’t until sometime in the 1970s that MDMA began being used recreationally.
The History of Ecstasy
By the time the 1980s rolled around, the party drug had gained rampant popularity. It was still legal in 1984, but by 1985 the drug was nationally banned (due to concerns regarding its safety). During the time period in which MDMA was still legal, it began being marketed as ‘ecstasy’ – a simple way for dealers to promote the feel-good drug. If you purchased ecstasy, you knew that you were getting a solid dose of MDMA… of course, that trend did not last too long. Drug dealers began selling ecstasy that contained little (or no) MDMA, and was often made with harmful chemicals such as rat poison, heroin, LSD, methamphetamine, and substances used for dog deworming. Adulterants such as these have lead to a vast decrease in pure MDMA circulation. Interestingly enough, however, it looks as though pure MDMA may be making a comeback – and not in the way you might think. Researchers at Imperial College London recently announced that they were granted ethical permission to conduct a small trial on about 20 patients suffering from severe alcohol addiction… using 99.99 percent pure MDMA as a primary treatment.
MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy is Real
Researchers believe that the common effects produced by MDMA – increased feelings of compassion and empathy, social connection, and affection – could potentially help those suffering from alcohol addiction get more out of their psychotherapy sessions. Ben Sessa, a clinical psychiatrist involved in the trial, stated, “It’s using drugs to enhance the relationship between the therapist and the patient, and it allows us to dig down and get to the heart of the problems that drive long-term mental illness.” It may seem a bit over-the-top, but previous studies have concluded that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy may be beneficial in treating both trauma and anxiety. A small study, conducted in 2010, showed that somewhere around 80 percent of PTSD patients stopped showing significant symptoms after their second MDMA-assisted therapy session.
Many researchers who support the use of psychedelics are concerned about the widespread stigma attached to such drugs. The majority of recreational MDMA users have only experienced the effects of the ecstasy that is available on the current market – which can, because of its inherent impurity, prove to be exceedingly dangerous. There is also a common misconception that psychoactive drugs such as MDMA can be detrimental based on their ability to cause users to lose complete control. Rick Doblin, the executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, states that a temporary lack of emotional control can actually be quite healing. “We’re seeing that keeping things in control is often what’s keeping these disorders from getting healed. When someone is able to let go of their normal sense of controlling their emotions or not feeling things or pushing things down, an astonishing type of healing can take place.”
Trauma Recovery and Psychedelics
Because trauma and substance abuse are often so closely linked, researchers are confident that MDMA-assisted therapy will be just as beneficial for alcoholics as it has been for trauma survivors. Sessa has been a longtime advocate of psychedelic drug use in the treatment of mental illness. He has conducted numerous studies on the benefits of drugs such as marijuana, MDMA, and psilocybin (commonly known as magic mushrooms). He is currently involved in two separate studies that explore the psychiatric benefits of MDMA – the study on alcoholic patients, and one being conducted on PTSD sufferers. According to Sessa, drug-assisted psychotherapy is a “radical new way of looking at treating mental illness”. But he understands the cultural implications (and irony) of using drugs to help treat a substance abuse disorder. “Because of the history of drug misuse in culture – and the continued problems with drugs in our society today – it is also a controversial subject. But it need not be; the psychedelic drugs (unlike cocaine, alcohol, and many prescribed drugs) are extremely safe – despite their negative public perception.”
Potential Health Risks
Of course, MDMA is not completely safe – and it can have adverse effects in alcoholics and trauma sufferers when used recreationally, seeing as it has been known to bring about painful memories that had been successfully repressed. Adverse physical side effects include nausea, increased heart rate, profuse sweating, and chills. Taking the drug in high doses may lead to a spike in body temperature so significant that it can cause kidney, liver, or heart failure – in some cases, even death. MDMA is classified as a Schedule 1 drug by the Drug Enforcement Administration, meaning that it is still defined as a dangerous substance with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” This current classification may not be in effect for very long, many researchers believe. Just last year, the US FDA (Food and Drug Administration) gave researchers permission to conduct phase three clinical trials on the benefits of MDMA in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. Phase three, for those of you who do not know, is the final phase necessary before the FDA grants approval for the public use of a specific drug.
Traditional Recovery Methods VS MDMA
Many recovering alcoholics who have gotten and stayed sober via traditional methods, such as therapeutic inpatient rehab and continuous involvement in 12-Step programs (such as Alcoholics Anonymous), will see these headlines and immediately condemn the entire theory as ridiculous. Why turn to a chemical substance in attempting to treat physical dependence on another? How does this make any sense? It is important to recognize that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy is not geared towards curing alcoholism, but rather towards breaking down the emotional barriers that keep any alcoholics closed off from their past traumatic experiences. Of course, there are other ways in which to uncover the root causes of addiction – we at Next Chapter employ many proven therapeutic methodologies geared towards doing just that. We have experienced great success in utilizing techniques such as inner child work, somatic experiencing, EMDR, and breath work. And while we are in no rush to begin experimental MDMA therapy on our patients who are working through past trauma, we are intrigued to know your opinion on the subject. Do you think psychedelics have a place in addiction and trauma therapy?