You’ve probably heard of MDMA, the party drug that’s been a favorite of music festival goers and ravers for years. Better known by the names Molly, Ecstasy, or just simply “X,” MDMA causes mild hallucinations, feelings of euphoria, and a sense of inner peace. And it’s that last one that has the FDA interested.
After a few small-scale trials, it seems that ecstasy’s ability to engender empathy and peace in its users could be a viable treatment for post-traumatic stress.
C.J. Hardin was one of the trial’s first participants. A veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, Hardin served three tours, but his service nearly destroyed his life. He became an alcoholic and was sometimes suicidal. His marriage suffered and then dissolved.
“Nothing worked for me, so I just put aside the idea that I could get better,” Hardin told the New York Times. “I just pretty much became a hermit in my cabin and never went out.” In 2013 he joined a trial to test whether Ecstasy could be used to treat PTSD.
“It changed my life,” Hardin said. “It allowed me to see my trauma without fear or hesitation and finally process things and move forward.”
After these initial results, the FDA has approved Ecstasy for large-scale trials — the last step before potential approval of a prescription drug.
There are still a lot of hurdles, however. In a 2007 study in the English medical journal, the Lancet, MDMA was listed as one of the least dangerous regulated drugs — falling short of alcohol and even marijuana — but that was before some of the long-term damage had been studied.
Ecstasy is regulated on a global scale thanks to UN treaties limited access to psychoactive drugs. And there are some real risks. Ecstasy, especially when mixed with other drugs, can cause death via dehydration and hyperthermia — literally overheating. It kicks many of the body’s normal systems into overdrive and, like cocaine, meth and other stimulants, can cause serious damage to the heart.
Perhaps worse is the long-term effects of use. MDMA is neurotoxic, and the studies that have been conducted so far recommend that lifetime use be kept low — fewer than 50 doses. Overtime, the drug damages memory and can cause a lot of permanent cognitive problems.
Despite the risks, the potential for treatment is real — especially given that rates of suicide among those with PTSD can often be astronomical. After three sessions of treatment over twelve weeks, patients saw a 56 percent decrease in symptoms with more than 60 percent of them not having PTSD by the end of the study. And these improvements lasted more than a year later.
If these results continue, Ecstasy could be available as a prescription as soon as 2021. And for those suffering from severe post-traumatic stress, it could well be a matter of life and death.
“I just felt hopeless and in the dark,” Hardin said. “But the MDMA sessions showed me a light I could move toward. Now I’m out of the darkness and the world is all around me.”