Can ecstasy drug therapy help cure PTSD?

TechKnow looks at the controversy surrounding psychedelic science and asks if a party drug can help cure trauma.

Illegal club drug molly, or ecstasy, has been one of the most popular party drugs since the 1980s.

Scientifically known as MDMA (Methylenedioxymethamphetamine), ecstasy is a psychoactive drug, which was first developed as a blood clotting agent, later patented as a diet drug. When taken, it acts on the brain by causing neurons to release more serotonin. This also causes the neurotransmitter dopamine, as well as hormones such as oxytocin to be released, all leading to a heightened feeling of trust and compassion, which is why the drug is often called an empathogen.

“I think people like taking MDMA because it makes you feel euphoric, it makes you feel like your anxiety is released, feelings of happiness. You can’t talk about MDMA without talking about love and that’s essentially why people take it,” club goer Joseph Petitt says.

The military once used the drug as what they imagined could be a truth serum, and now there is evidence that suggests it could help  post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, sufferers.

“Treating PTSD virtually always involves revisiting the trauma in a therapeutic setting, and if they are not emotionally engaged enough, then the therapy doesn’t work. So we think that MDMA seems to have this interesting combination of helping decrease fear and defensiveness at the same time,” Dr Michael Mithoefer, a private psychiatrist using MDMA in psychotherapy to treat PTSD, explains.

Rachel Hope was severely neglected as a child, and by the age of six she had been sexually abused. In the 1990s she was diagnosed with PTSD. She had been repeatedly admitted to hospital, seen many therapists, and still, her defensive reflexes were on high alert.

In 2005, she became part of a revolutionary study: she was one of 23 patients to undergo MDMA-assisted therapy led by Mithoefer, who uses pure MDMA made in a university lab that’s registered with the Food and Drug Administration.

Being a teetotaler, Hope says that she was very apprehensive about taking any sort of drug to treat her PTSD, but claims she saw immediate results.

“Whether it’s a cure or a durable remission, that can be argued,” says Mithoefer. “Her symptoms have been reduced to the point where she no longer falls into the category of having PTSD.”

According to Mithoefer’s study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, 83 percent of those treated with MDMA-assisted therapy saw significant reductions in their PTSD symptoms. That’s in comparison to the 25 percent reduction in patients who were given a placebo.

However, MDMA is still classified as a ‘Schedule I’ drug, which means it has no accepted medical value and has the potential for abuse.

Over the past years, many users have been treated in hospital or have died after reportedly taking pills labelled as ecstasy. Most of the times these pills are mixed with other substances, making them dangerous.

Independent private testing groups have collected data, and it has been found that of almost 3,700 samples submitted, only 27.5 percent of the time it was pure MDMA.

But the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) remains sceptical: “There is no such thing as a “good” batch of drugs versus a “bad” batch of drugs. Ask the parents of the dead kids,” Rusty Payne, the DEA spokesman, says. 

So should MDMA be classified as legal for medical uses? Can this revolutionise the future of therapeutic treatment? And who should make the decision?

TechKnow examines how scientific research crosses with a popular party drug.