Soul Medicine: Ecstasy (MDMA) as Therapy

· December 23, 2009

In 1912, Jung publishes Transformations and Symbols of the Libido. The book introduces the concept of the collective unconscious and furthers his position regarding the mytho-poetic nature of the psyche; in 1912, ambient trance music has never been heard; in 1912, the German pharmaceutical company Merck files a patent that includes an aside about two new molecules that will spawn 100,000 raves, fortify the cult of the “Burning Man” celebration, and just possibly be the cure for at least one undeniably debilitating affliction. The molecules:

3,4-methylenedioxyamphetamine (MDA) &
3, 4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA)
— also known as the street drug Ecstasy

MDA reached the psychedelic underground in the mid- ’60s. Nicknamed the love drug, it reportedly induced a feeling of sensuous euphoria. It was declared useless as medicine and dangerous for citizens, (though many of those citizens wanted it), and made illegal in the United States by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. MDMA however remained under the radar until well into the ‘80s and underground chemists continued to manufacture and distribute the drug.

In 1978, Dr. Alexander (Sasha) Shulgin (who had synthesized the drug in 1976 with Dr. David Nichols of Purdue University) published the first human study of MDMA in the scientific literature. He described the MDMA experience as “an easily controlled altered state of consciousness with emotional and sensual overtones.”

 

Dr. Shulgin completed his Ph.D in biochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley in 1954. He completed his postdoctoral work in the fields of psychiatry and pharmacology at the University of California, San Francisco. It was while working as a senior research scientist with Dow Chemicals that he created the world’s first biodegradable insecticide and was thus given free range to pursue his own research by the chemical giant.

The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley. Photo: harpercollins.comHighly influenced by that perennial of psychedelic literature, Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception, in which Huxley analyzed and praised the effects of mescaline, a psychoactive alkaloid of the peyote cactus, the young Dow Chemicals scientist decided he too had to experience first hand the wondrous "Heaven and Hell" of psychedelics. One mescaline trip was enough to transport the chemist on the journey of his life. His life’s purpose would be to study, synthesize and experiment with some of the most powerful and intriguing psychoactive molecules on this and probably any other planet. MDMA, which is structurally similar to both mescaline and to amphetamine, particularly tweaked his interest.

Dr. Shulgin was in contact with many practicing psychotherapists in and around the San Francisco Bay area. He suggested they try out this new phantastica of personal discovery, a short acting, non-addictive drug with apparently few undesirable side effects that seemed to invoke a most agreeable experience of empathetic understanding and blissful bodily sensations. An enticing additional effect — Shulgin found that the drug triggered the recall of emotionally charged memories.

The therapists were intrigued and started their own investigations. They quickly ascertained that the pill did act as the research scientist suggested — it could be used quite handily in relationship therapy, and its ability to facilitate access to traumatic emotional content, when contextualized within the right setting and support, advanced the healing process many fold.

Handled with Care
Though there was excitement about this new drug, the attitude held by the research community was tempered by experience. Mainstream psychiatry had been seriously burnt when it had embraced psychedelic drugs in the ‘60s, as the media broadcasted the remarkable findings with sensational and bizarre but enticing tales that spooked conservatives. Before Dr. Timothy Leary took centerstage and the youths swallowed up the message to experiment with these powerful substances, psychiatry was making use of them to treat alcoholism and neurosis, to study creativity and to understand how the mind works. (They also occasionally misused them, as in the criminal behavior of the McGill University hospital in Montreal, where psychiatrist Dr. Ewen Cameron had been pioneering a technique called "psychic driving.” Supported with money from the CIA, Cameron experimented on patients, literally driving them insane by dosing them with LSD, confining them to isolation chambers and bombarding them with looped taped suggestions. Later, Charlie Manson and his crew became the most cogent example of how psychedelics could be used to help fuel the realization of demented, violent fantasies.)

Magic mushrooms with holy cross in backgroundEven mainstream religion tripped to nirvana. One of the most remarkable documents of the early history (1957) of psychedelia comes from a monsignor at Vancouver’s Holy Rosary Cathedral, Vancouver’s central Catholic church. He wrote a prayer for those about to embark on a LSD journey: “We therefore approach the study of these psychedelics and their influence on the mind of man anxious to discover whatever attributes they possess respectfully evaluating their proper place in the Divine Economy. We humbly ask our Heavenly Mother the Virgin, help of all who call upon her to know and understand the true qualities of these psychedelics, the full capacities of man’s noblest faculties and according to God’s laws to use them for the benefit of mankind here and in eternity.”

MDMA, aka Ecstasy, though considered by some a psychedelic, has singular effects that place it within a subset of that genre of drug, or even within its own completely novel category. Dr. Ralph Metzner, an elder pioneer of the psychedelic therapy movement and one time student of Dr. Leary, christened MDMA as an “empathogen” — a drug that encourages empathy. Dr. Nichols, considered by many as the foremost psychedelic researcher has called it an “entactogen”, — "entactogen" is derived from Greek and Latin roots and means being able to touch within.

Ecstasy might be old news to you, but it is big news to civilization. Humankind does not come up with a psychoactive drug with unique properties every day. The rough, addictive depressant alcohol has been in use since at least 10,000 B.C. People have been stinking up their caves with cannabis from the 3rd millennium BC. People have been tripping on psilocybin mushrooms at least since the domestication of cattle, And humans were, of course, impatient to start using stimulants, which have been around for just as long.

MAPing the Way to Medicalization
Rick Doblin, a 5′ 6′ man with the bearing of a guy who wrestled for the high school team, has a doctorate from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the founder and director of MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. MAPS is Rick’s brain child, the driving force behind a worldwide movement to encourage medical professionals to study the prudent therapeutic application of MDMA with the goal of rescheduling it for medical use — the current tag lines in MAPS publications is “MAPS: Putting the MD back in MDMA”.

The only completed study of MDMA assisted psychotherapy for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (which was sponsored by MAPS) created headlines in 2008 throughout the media landscape, from Dr. Gupta on CNN suggesting that “people will be amazed at the results”, to a double spread article in The Economist — “MDMA assisted patients showed statistically significant improvement of their PTSD symptoms compared with those who received the same day-long therapy sessions with an inactive placebo.”

A patient under the influence of MDMA, remains calm, centered, and can speak clearly. Relative to LSD, it is an extraordinarily gentle delving into one’s own psyche, rather than a wrenching toss into dimensions unknown. Depression, anxiety and any sense of suffering are usually lifted completely. The burden of trauma and stress gone — the patient is made profoundly at ease with herself, and the sense of self — rather than being lost or dissolved (as with the temporary "ego loss" sometimes experienced under other psychedelics) is made reflective — meditative, calm and loving. Dr. Julie Holland, of Bellevue Hospital, Faculty, NYU School of Medicine, and editor of Ecstasy: The Complete Guide wrote: “Any psychiatric disorder that can be ameliorated by psychotherapy can be treated more quickly and more profoundly with MDMA-assisted therapy.”

Ecstasy pill with psychedelic background

The Use and Misuse of this Technology
A profitable way of understanding MDMA and psychedelic drugs is to think of them as technologies. These technologies are reflectors of self, of the complexity of one’s own mind — the abstract mind, the rational mind and the emotional mind all twined together permitting us to see our emotional history, and the present state of our psyche, our self. At the peak of these experiences, the psychedelics can show the world as an unconditioned given, as the world is without firm tags of language, yet it is imminently poetic and symbolic. Contradictory? Sure. But I would claim that psychedelics provide a glimpse into the soul.

During the late ‘70s and early ‘80s the therapists thought it best to keep the lid on. Not wanting to see a repeat of the clampdown on LSD in the late 1960s, they did not talk to the media about MDMA at all. The drug underground had other ideas. MDMA was taken up by countercultural activists and entrepreneurs (drug dealers, by another name). Quite consciously rebranded as Ecstasy, a black market encouraged casual use and a whole new music culture came into existence. Overreacting, in 1985, the state made MDMA Schedule One (illegal and with no medical use.) MDMA/Ecstasy is now a demonized substance in the USA, slurred as a narcotic. It cannot be prescribed by a physician, and is prohibited for every application under threat of incarceration.

Prohibition has created a much more dangerous but quite massive underground use and abuse, creating problems with adulterated, sometimes poisonous ‘product,’ use of the drug in circumstances that don’t support the value of the experience, overuse, and use with other drugs. Meanwhile, the lawful community of therapists and researchers have lost a surpassingly valuable tool. Professor David Nutt, (past) chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, U.K, wrote in the Journal of Psychopharmacology: ‘There is not much difference between the dangers of horse-riding and the dangers of ecstasy.’

Ecstacy PillsFew deaths have been linked to the use of the millions of tabs of MDMA throughout the decades (125 tonnes of E is consumed annually world wide according to the UN). But most of those few can be attributed to the setting of specific raves and the miscalculation of users. Dehydration, overhydration and heat stroke are real dangers, but one does have to put to rest the idea that MDMA was the principal cause of death in most of these cases. MDMA does increase body temperature; dancing all night while high without supplying the body with fluids is not a good idea, but neither is drinking water excessively. There are a few cases of individuals on MDMA who — heeding the advice to keep hydrated –drank an excessive amount of water and died of water intoxication. In other words, cause of death: water intoxication. The point is critical; it brings home the most central dictum of pharmacology, quoting from the father of the science, Paracelsus: “All things are poison, and nothing is without poison. For example, every food and drink, if taken beyond its dose is poison; the result proves it. I admit that poison is poison; that it should, however be rejected is impossible.“

The most grievous misuse of MDMA is related to overuse and improper attention to the set and setting of the user while under the influence. The normal dose is between 100-125 mg., and generally, the dose should not be repeated to extend the length of the trip unless supervised by a therapist. Also, one trip every three to four months is a reasonable maximum use window, permitting the individual enough time to integrate the knowledge gained by the psyche’s refocusing (initiated by the drug) and permitting the body and brain neurochemistry sufficient time to return to normal baseline functioning. There is no physical craving for MDMA; it is not an addictive substance. MDMA should not be used by anyone with cardiac problems, or with a history of seizures. Swallowing it every weekend for partying is not at all wise and can prove to be dangerous for long-term mental health. It’s also highly ineffective. The drug provides quickly diminishing returns with repeat use.

The peak engagement is short acting, 3 to 4 hours, as compared to the 8 or more hours of a high dose LSD experience. Incredibly and importantly, most pain — even chronic pain disappears during an MDMA session. These effects are consistently reported and observed with the majority of patients.

The Pusher Man
Doctor giving prescriptionSales of antidepressant drugs in the United States doubled between 1996 and 2005, and remains on an upward swing. In 2008, sales of these drugs totaled $9.6 billion in the US alone. Direct to consumer advertising for them is about $122 million per year. These pushers are busy, busy, busy; one company spent $34.7 million to pay 2,000 psychiatrists and primary care doctors to deliver 15,000 lectures to market their product to their peers. These legal, corporate mind drugs are meant to be used on a daily basis for as long as the patient is considered unwell, which could be the rest of his or her life. That’s quite a fantastic cash cow, as people return for their prescription refills. Conversely, in psychedelic therapy, the drugs are used on rare occasions. They are combined with psychotherapy and — with luck — within a supportive community and there are no patents on the molecules. No one is going to finance a villa in Venice on magic mushrooms when it can grow in a field strewn with organic sheep manure.

It’s a long road from prohibited drug, and one with little market value, to a prescribed medicine. Doblin is confident that MAPS will be able to move forward with the final phase of research — one requiring many more subjects. Because of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the government to investigate the harms that MDMA might cause, there are over 3,000 scientific papers on the subject all in the public domain. This state sanctioned and financed groundwork will allow MAPS to jump the hurdles of the FDA’s approval process for about $10 million dollars — that’s a third of what the Ang Lee movie about Woodstock cost and a hell of a lot more true to the heritage of the psychedelic experience.

A monsignor at Vancouver’s Holy Rosary Cathedral, Vancouver’s central Catholic church… wrote a prayer for those about to embark on an LSD journey.

Because of ignorance and fear, psychedelic medicines have been left to languish in the underground and are still refused entry into polite society. No corporation can make a dollar on them. The patents have expired and they are still taboo. But prohibition against these non addictive drugs — these mind manifesting enhancers — is a law against our own nature. We crave — and even desperately need — to feel the fullness of ecstatic mind states; the disappearance of the bounds that constrict us to our day to day identities, and to fully experience the condition of grace — the condition of being grateful for life.

Our entire society is under constant, ever-increasing stress. Trauma is prevalent and the old standbys of family and social order are, for many, inadequate. Civilization is in a chaotic flux. Only the steady heart of the Self, the emotional self that sees and appreciates our common humanity, in empathy and humility, can right the imbalance. As we face upsetting economic, social and cultural changes globally and locally, should we not be making use of every technological advancement?

Oliver Hockenhull is a Vancouver based filmmaker currently producing and directing a documentary essay on the resurgence of psychedelics and psychoactive drugs in therapy (A PERFECT PILL: FROM NEURONS TO NIRVANA — www.aperfectpill.com)

17 Responses

  1. Lauren says:

    Please identify to your readers that you are presenting no scientific research here, merely the ideas of hallucinogen enthusiasts. The idea of MDMA as medicine has a long way to go before you even begin to think about presenting it in an article like this. The concerns about MDMA are many, medically and psychiatrically. It is likely never to be prescribed by any credible doctor.

  2. Anonymous says:

    LOL WUT?

  3. Robert Forte says:

    “it is never likely to be prescribed by any credible doctor”

    i surveyed a random sample of the American Psychiatric Association in 1984 and found that a doctors’ enthusiasm and support for the judicious use of “hallucinogens” is directly proportional to their knowledge and experience of them. The more a doctor knows about this subject, either through personal experience, or by knowledge of the extensive literature in many fields–in addition to medicine–the more they endorse research and wise use. And, according to my survey, the only doctors who dismiss the subject are those who by their own admission are relatively ignorant of the subject that has been vigorously repressed and ridiculed in mainstream media/propaganda. So it depends what you mean by “credible.” I prefer to believe people who are acquainted with the subject they deem to pronounce useful or not.

    Robert Forte, editor Entheogens and the Future of Religion, and Timothy Leary: Outside Looking In.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Lauren please inform the readers that you never experienced E, You have no idea of the chemical structure nor its impact on the receptors. You’re also a bias mechanized robot incapable of seeing value in anything illegal. GTFO

  5. jackmeoff says:

    it was used legally before it was made illegal by police, not licensed doctors.

  6. Oliver says:

    Lauren:

    There has been rigorous scientific research regarding the use of MDMA in therapeutic settings, most recently in regards to its use in treating posttraumatic stress disorder. Though the study is only mentioned briefly in the above article and not detailed, the work of Dr. Mithoefer who conducted the recent MDMA trials is one which you might want to Google for more information. His findings were presented at the Royal Society of Psychiatrist Annual Convention in 2009.

    A balanced and helpful book that speaks to both the dangers and potentials of MDMA, covering the science in some detail, is Dr. Julie Holland’s “Ecstasy: The Complete Guide, A Comprehensive Look at the Risks and Benefits of MDMA” which is briefly mentioned in my unashamedly pop article.

    Light, Oliver

  7. Matt says:

    This was a very interesting read and I think it sheds a lot of truth of the current state of the psychedelic experience. As I look around today though, not many people I see could even begin to prepare for a psychedelic experience and use it wisely. The damage of psychedelic prohibition has been done and will be difficult to undo. This magazine, harm-reduction groups, and other big organizations like MAPS are certainly steps in the right direction but I cannot see psychedelics being legally available to the mainstream for a really long time. Until then though, let the brave voyagers of this vast sea of consciousness come back to shore safety to share much needed wisdom with the modern world.

  8. MTPR says:

    There is a huge difference between hallucinogens and MDMA. Hallucinogens are often seratonin agonists with few long-term effects. MDMA causes receptor damage and oxidative stress by literally causing dopamine to flow backwards and pool. MDMA cannot be classified with hallucinogens like LSD, Psilocybin, or 2-CB, it is a very different animal.

  9. brian weir says:

    this will be ,like any other mind altering drug – say antidepressants- probably only to be used in conjunction with medical care for short term treatment of PTSD , problems form abuse. etc,. as it does indeed stress the brain, a problem with unknown dosages of unknown composition.

  10. James Evans says:

    I encourage everyone to make a year end donation to MAPS at http://www.maps.org. Every bit helps, and will be used to fund scientific psychedelic research.

  11. Wal says:

    I have a room mate who i have been friends with some 25 years. About 7 years ago he started losing his voice and found it increasingly difficult to talk at all. Many doctors attributed this to stress related to a particularly difficult period in his life. Finally, mainly through research and self diagnosis the medicos agreed with his opinion and diagnosed spastic (phonic) dysphonia – see http://www.mondofacto.com/facts/dictionary?spastic+dysphonia

    he was shattered as there is no known cure for this disease – however a short term solution is the injection of botox directly into the larynx – so on a three monthly cycle he goes from a gravelly whisper to normal voice and back again.

    I have failed to mention that he also has an amazing singing voice – and that this disease has stopped any chance he had of pursuing a career in music.
    The point of this story however is that if he injests even a small amount of MDMA (E) he is relieved of ALL symptoms for a period of 3-4 hours and has increased speech function for a day or two after this.

    When he pointed this out to his neurologist her immediate response was “ecstasy only burns holes in your mind” and would not even consider looking into it further

    So if a simple E has the potential to assist someone like this (and may others afflicted with this disease) and is not available what else can our supreme medical industry offer him other than injections of a lethal nerve toxin DIRECTLY into his throat

    your comments would be MOST appreciated

    Wal

  12. johnfreeman says:

    Hey dude

    Got a reference for that??

    jfreemand1@aol.com

  13. Dermot says:

    MAPS organization is to be supported wholeheartedly. This issue for me is that the psychedelic science is so entrenched underground that regardless of any further progress, it will remain a misused drug. All of this may not have been avoided if in mainstream medicine, though, its unorthodox production and distribution may have been averted and its access to the party drug scene thwarted to a trickle.

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  14. Machinist says:

    (please forgive my poor english, Im french..a frog or wathever you name it :P ) I felt in love with E. Its a sad thing that you cannot make abuse of this drugs, after 3-4 trip in a row, the effect is very little to none. This is why I take, if I want to, MDMA every 2-3 months. Its is more enjoyable to have a good trip this way. The abuse simply make E not effective. I have learned that, rapidly, after my first experience.

    This drug completely change my perception of life. I am more able to appreciate the good moments in every day life. Before, for 3 years, I was become an depressive person, full of anger and regrets. The use of Ecstasy, prepare you to see deeper in your mind and help you to know who you are, where is your place in this chaotic world where value of productivity and consumption are encourage over feeling and beauty of life.

    I crave for the feeling that ecstasy give to me, and like said in this article, ecstasy just unlock the true yourself. You are like a child seeing a buterfly for the first time. Life is full of beauty, but we are blind to it. I have never gone to rave since the occasion never presented to me. When I do a trip on E, I just prepare good trance groovie music, a calm environment in my bed room, alone and then I go see whats is hidden in the deep of my mind. I have understand many thing about me on E. My life is better.

    This is maybe sad to say ; Im hook by this drug, my life was not worth the effort before, even the idea of suicide have come to my thought. E simply made me want to live again. Im a better person, my life is better, everything is beter and more enjoyable to do. E have heal my soul.

  15. James DelCol says:

    I believe they are already using this substance on veterans and they plan on using it to treat PTSD in the newly wounded men and women who are serving in these newest wars we are waging. So, this may push the issue. They don’t want their bloodbath to show signs of moral breakdown. The government will try and cure veterans before they begin to make the government look bad. Too many men and women receiving deep emotional wounds (after 7 tours in Iraq or Afghanistan) will eventually be the thing that brings people out to stop war. Believe me the government doesn’t want to stop. All these wars in the Middle East breaking out. There are people who want this war. They want to continue for sure if their most liberal son is conducting the wars (Barack Obama). This substance is going to become legal for medicinal use in a controlled setting. It will be very restricted in this capacity, but it will help people because what they are saying about it is true.

  1. October 8, 2012

    [...] crossed the great “white divide” is the drug ecstasy aka “Molly.” Ecstasy (MDMA) was first synthesized in the 60′s and like LSD, Ibogaine and some other drugs, was [...]

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