Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Ecstasy and Psychotherapy

Can the addictive drug ecstasy have
positivemedical use?


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 Patients.

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

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