Ecstasy and Psychotherapy

Can the addictive drug ecstasy have positivemedical use?

By Paul Glanzrock, published on May 1, 1994 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016


In 1994, the FDA formally approved for research use in humans the
hallucinogenic agent Ecstasy. Researchers believe that Ecstasy,
technically known as MDMA, may relieve the pain and emotional distress of
terminal cancer patients and speed the recovery of soldiers suffering
from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Dubbed "the love drug" for effects that include profound feelings
of empathy and a nirvana-like contentment, Ecstasy was outlawed by the
Drug Enforcement Agency in 1986. But the same effects that have made it a
popular underground agent make it of interest to psychiatrists today.
MDMA may accelerate the therapeutic process of psychotherapy.

"Between 1977 and 1985, roughly half a million doses were
administered for the treatment of depression, anxiety, rape-related
trauma, and even schizophrenia," reports Richard Doblin, a doctoral
student at Harvard University who heads the Multidisciplinary Association
for Psychedelic Research. He charges that "politics over science" stifled
proper funding and recognition of MDMA research thereafter.

What's more, he claims that in giving the signal for formal
research on MDMA only in 1994, the FDA has "failed to recognize the
successful results of the past." So the drug must undergo "lengthy and
expensive testing in order to establish what we already know-- that MDMA
is safe for clinical use."

Studies to establish basic human safety, now underway at the
University of California at Los Angeles by psychiatrist Charles Grob,
M.D., must be completed before any clinical trials of MDMA can begin. The
drug's effect on brain chemistry is also being examined.

Ecstasy is known to be safer than LSD, the hallucinogen famed for
producing psychotic episodes in the '60s. However, there is concern about
MDMA's effect on the neurotransmitter serotonin, the levels of which are
closely linked to depression and sleep regulation. In one study, heavy
MDMA users reportedly experienced a 30 percent decrease in serotonin
levels. However, they did not experience the impulsive and hostile
behavior other studies have linked to lowered serotonin levels.


FDA has recently approved the research use of a number of other
psychedelic agents. Observers attribute the loosening up of the agency to
key personnel changes and pressure from activist groups.

o Marijuana, for the treatment of epilepsy, Huntington's chorea,
and appetite loss and psychological trauma in HIV-positive and AIDS

o The African root ibogaine, which has psychedelic properties, to
reduce dependency in cocaine, heroin, alcohol, and nicotine

o Research into LSD, an addiction-busting agent has been