By Scotty Schenck, photo editor

Known as “ecstasy” or “molly,” MDMA may soon be an effective treatment against post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is attempting to legalize MDMA as a prescription for certain illnesses. In a newsletter sent to their constituents on March 16, MAPS said it had received approval from the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) on Friday, March 13 for a Schedule I license for Phil Wolfson, M.D., the principal investigator in a new MAPS study. This isn’t the only time the license has been awarded to MAPS — this is currently the seventh MDMA clinical trial with DEA approval.

“Obtaining DEA approval was the last step in the complex, arduous, and lengthy process of getting approval for our study,” Dr. Wolfson said in the newsletter.

This was the final step before initiating experiments regarding the safety and effectiveness of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy to treat anxiety associated with life-threatening illnesses. MAPS had already received approval from the Institutional Review Board, FDA and the Research Advisory Panel of California to conduct the phase-2 study.

Connor McKay, president of the Students for Sensible Drug Policy chapter at Northeastern, said this type of scientific research works against the stigma associated with psychedelics. McKay will also be welcoming the founder of MAPS, Rick Doblin, and former Washington Post Editor Tom Shroder, author of “Acid Test: LSD, Ecstasy and the Power to Heal,” to Northeastern on April 3 to discuss psychedelic research.

“I think studies like this play an important role … both medical and personal. It gives a personal story to these treatments. It gives medical legitimacy to these substances,” McKay said. “I don’t think people are going to stop using MDMA recreationally. I think people will see it as abusing medicine … rather than ‘you’re just doing drugs.’ This will open the medical discussion about these substances.”

MDMA, chemically called 3,4-Methylenedioxy-methamphetamine, is typically sold as ecstasy or molly, but these can contain adulterants or other substances. In a 2006 study by Vanderbilt University, only 39 percent of tablets sold as ecstasy were pure and 46 percent had no MDMA at all.

MAPS uses pure MDMA, which according to the nonprofit drug education organization Erowid has effects that include forgiveness of self and others, feelings of love and empathy, decreased fear, anxiety and insecurities and increased willingness to communicate. However, MAPS says the treatment is not based solely in the euphoric effects of MDMA, but rather what the combination of the drug and proper therapy can do.

“MDMA reduces activity in the amygdala where fear is processed and it increases activity in the frontal cortex where people put things in association and context. So people are able to look at traumatic memories. … They’re able to separate out that it was happening then and not now,“ Doblin said in an interview with CNN. “We’re saying that MDMA itself is not the medicine. It’s MDMA-assisted psychotherapy.”

A double-blind, phase two study was conducted by MAPS in 2010 using 20 participants, 8 receiving placebo and 12 receiving MDMA, to test the drugs effect on treatment-resistant PTSD. Subjects for the study met the criteria for war- or crime-related PTSD and received weekly psychotherapy sessions, only in two sessions were subjects given either their placebo or MDMA dose. At the study’s conclusion, MAPS discovered 83 percent of subjects given MDMA-assisted psychotherapy no longer displayed symptoms. The study also said MAPS was able to administer MDMA without any evidence of harm to the participants.

MAPS will meet with the FDA to further develop MDMA as a prescription medication for PTSD, and to discuss the larger clinical trials which will need to be conducted before releasing the drug as a medication. According to the United States National Library of Medicine, phase three trials are when the drug is given to large groups of people to confirm its effectiveness.

“We envision a world where MDMA, other psychedelics, and marijuana are safely and legally available for beneficial uses, and where research is governed by rigorous scientific evaluation of their risks and benefits. We currently estimate that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy will be legally available for PTSD treatment in 2021,” MAPS Director of Communications and Marketing Brad Burge said. “Our first two completed MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD studies—in South Carolina and Switzerland—both showed results which, if they were from a Phase 3 trial, would be sufficient for the FDA to approve the treatment. The unprecedented levels of public support for psychedelic research [motivates MAPS] to work hard, often overtime, to see these treatments safely and legally available for those who need.”

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.