was outlawed by the United States in 1985. Since then it has gone underground, reappearing as the club drug "ecstasy" and more recently, "molly".
Now a San Anselmo psychiatrist, Dr. Philip Wolfson, is getting 18 people for a research project that will employ the use of the banned drug—for therapeutic purposes.
The goal of the study is to see whether patients suffering from crippling anxiety, fear or depression over a devastating diagnosis can find relative peace from several extended psychotherapy sessions under the influence of ecstasy.
Ecstasy, the street name for the psychoactive drug MDMA, is a radically different kind of medication for the treatment of anxiety. Rather than calming or sedating, a four- or five-hour psychedelic journey with MDMA, Wolfson said, can be “transformationally potent” when used in a safe, comfortable setting with a pair of trained therapists, one man and one woman.
First discovered in 1912 as a part of German pharmaceutical company Merck's research into drugs designed to clot blood,
it was revived years later and made it into a Polish scientific journal. From there it started becoming synthesized and spread out into the wild, where it was picked up by a former scientist at DOW chemicals (Dr. Shulgin) whose enthusiasm for the drug brought it to mainstream prominence in the mid 1970s.
Dr. Wolfson's interest in the drug's therapeutic properties arose out of his and his wife's use of the drug a few decades ago, in treating their emotional distress while their son battled leukemia. Wolfson is not the only health official interested in the drug's positive possibilities.
Others in the federal government are also showing interest in the MDMA study. Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, said his agency is following several privately funded studies that are using psychedelic drugs in conjunction with psychotherapy to treat a variety of mental disorders.
“It’s a really interesting and a very powerful new approach,” Insel said. “It’s not just taking MDMA. It’s taking it in the context of a treatment that involves improved insight and increased skills and using this in the broader context of psychotherapy.”
This is a part of a movement to legalize MDMA for therapeutic purposes.
"The tide has changed for psychedelic research," said Brad Burge, the communications director for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a California-based nonprofit research group that studies medicinal uses for psychedelics and marijuana and is sponsoring the study. The DEA approved the project on Friday, he said.
If the pilot is successful, MAPS plans to continue with further studies involving more subjects and different approaches. For now, researchers hope to establish basic safety and effectiveness, he said.
The trial is part of a larger $20 million plan to make MDMA an FDA-approved prescription medicine by 2021, Burge said. MAPS is the only organization in the world funding MDMA-assisted psychotherapy trials, he added.