First medical pot, next ecstasy therapy?

Ecstasy deserves another chance, some medical experts contend.
Ecstasy, also known as MDMA, is currently on the Schedule I list, defined by the Drug Enforcement Agency as a drug not accepted for use in medical treatment and has a high potential for abuse. But according to hundreds of studies done since the mid-2000s, MDMA can potentially be used as a therapy treatment for patients with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and anxiety.

Every hour, a military veteran commits suicide, according to the U.S. Dept. of  Veterans Affairs. Each year, about 5.2 million adults are affected by PTSD.

The popularity of electronic music and rave culture has sealed a bad reputation for the recreational use of the drug, hindering researchers and their quest for legalized clinical MDMA-assisted treatments.

“People need to understand that every drug has risks and benefits,” said Dr. Michael Mithoefer, a clinical researcher for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies in Charleston, S.C. “People need to step back and realize that we shouldn’t ban something just because it can be abused.”

Mithoefer has pioneered research since 2004 on the use of MDMA on PTSD patients. He said that when the results first came out, people were very skeptical because of the stigma surrounding the drug culture. Now, after many studies and more education, the growing hype around psychedelic therapy is being taken more seriously, he said.

“We need to separate the problem of people abusing things and try to address that in an intelligent way in treatment,” Mithoefer said. “We don’t want to deprive patients of potentially life-saving treatment.”

Though there are other anti-anxiety medications such as Zoloft or Paxil in the market, Mithoefer said these prescription drugs don’t get to the root of the problem.

MDMA-assisted psychotherapy treatment room.  (Courtesy of Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies)

MDMA-assisted psychotherapy treatment room. (Courtesy of Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies)

Dr. Ben Sessa, London-based consultant psychiatrist and drug-addiction psychologist, and his team of MDMA treatment researchers are currently trying to raise money to conduct a study that will, he hopes, pave the way for psychedelic treatment on PTSD patients.

“MDMA is kind of like a bulletproof vest or an inflatable life jacket type thing,” he said. “It’s something you can wear to do the therapy.”

The long-term result is what Sessa said he’s aiming for, not just a quick fix. In a 12-week therapy course, that includes three weeks of using MDMA, he said this could actually be a curative treatment. Though the process won’t relieve all the pain, it can be greatly lessened.

“The pain is bearable,” he said. “It gives the patients an extra level of resilience.”

Through his experience, Sessa said MDMA has never been on the radar as an addictive drug. During the trials, he doesn’t see this as an issue arising.

“I’m doing this as a clinical doctor and I genuinely believe this is a medicine that patients need,” he said. “I genuinely believe it can be prescribed safely and effectively.”

Chicago clinical social worker Suzanne McClure said use remains suspect to her. From what she knows about ecstasy, she said she doesn’t believe this is the best treatment option.

To her knowledge, “it’s never come up, it’s never discussed,” she said. And she doesn’t know anyone who would consider it either.

But her notions about ecstasy come mainly from the stigma associated with illegal substances, a problem that prohibits drug policy from moving forward.

Kathie Kane-Willis, director at the Illinois Consortium of Drug Policy, confirmed that she has not heard of any efforts for the use of MDMA or other Schedule I drugs to be used for therapy treatment. She said with the current state of the political environment, there’s just no interest for its use.

“The only way you can do that is through legislature, and there’s no appetite for that,” she said.

Though medical marijuana has gotten a hold on the general public, she said it still hasn’t received the approval of the entire nation.

“I would say that the majority of Americans believe in legalization of cannabis, yet legislators tend to lag behind their constituents,” Kane-Willis said.

But what really needs to be done is public education about these substances and their potential to do cure a crippling disorder. Kane-Willis said she thinks there is a future for these types of treatments and she said she hopes they do break through, but it’s going to take a lot of discussion and time for people to get used to the idea of the “boogieman in the closet.”

“We have a very binary way of looking at this,” she said. “It’s either good or bad. I don’t know if it’s about the harm; it’s about the fear. It’s about the drug scare.”
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