By Veronica Chavez
Photo courtesy of Christian Kadluba.
Using MDMA, LSD, and other psychedelic substances as tools for psychotherapy may seem like a relatively new and radical concept. After all, these synthetic compounds first entered into public awareness as recreational drugs, known to induce mind-altering experiences and emotional awakenings of sorts.
However, before these drugs fell into the hands of curious hippies and club-goers, psychiatrists were primarily utilizing them as an aid in intensifying and essentially expediting the therapeutic process.
Between 1950 and 1965, psychiatrists gave LSD (known commercially at that time as Delysid) to approximately 40,000 patients. Psychiatrists believed that the change in an individual’s life perception while on the drug could be useful for treating a range of mental illnesses.
A number of LSD-therapy studies conducted during this period showed clinical success with alcoholics, narcotic-drug addicts, sociopaths, and patients dying of cancer or other incurable diseases.
In the 1970s, psychotherapists also began using MDMA within therapeutic settings to treat terminally ill patients, PTSD sufferers, drug addicts, couples with marriage troubles, and others suffering with mental illness. The drug, like LSD, was used to facilitate a “healing catharsis,” allowing patients to communicate better and ideally, gain a new outlook on life.
While these psychedelic-therapy studies were taking place, public use of LSD and MDMA slowly began increasing. In the 1960s, LSD ignited a counterculture movement, with use quickly spreading from research labs to hippie gatherings.
As for MDMA, the drug was rebranded as “ecstasy” in the early 1980s and club-goers were able to buy the drug openly as an alternative to alcohol.
However, shortly after MDMA emerged onto the party scene, Texan politicians began requesting a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) scheduling of the substance.
Once word of the possible scheduling got around, professionals who were working with MDMA requested to hold a hearing to demonstrate the drug’s beneficial outcomes.
Photo courtesy of Psychonaught.
Despite a wide range of expert testimony, the DEA placed MDMA in the Schedule I category on an “emergency basis” in 1985.
Although Schedule I drugs are still permitted for use within research, the DEA’s emergency scheduling essentially halted the progress conducted in the field.
“Once [the DEA] schedules a drug, suddenly nobody wants to touch it,” explains Brad Burge of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.
As Burge tells BTR, the sudden scheduling of the drug made researchers hesitant to talk to their superiors about grants for MDMA studies. Additionally, state and federal governments wouldn’t provide funding for “illegal drugs.”
Even enthusiastic individuals who designed studies for MDMA-assisted therapy after the scheduling received little attention from the US Food and Drug Administration, the organization responsible for approving protocols so that a study can begin.
“The FDA would just lose protocols, or say they never got them, or they would fall into the waste basket or just go to the bottom of the pile,” Burge says.
After almost 30 years of battling the FDA–and later on the Institutional Review Board–regarding the ethics of MDMA-assisted therapy, researchers began receiving approval for studies within the last few years.
MAPS, a non-profit research organization, is one of the leading pioneers in executing these studies. The organization found that MDMA, “when taken a limited number of times in moderate doses” is sufficiently safe.
As relayed by Burge, there have been about 850 test subjects in clinical trials that have received MDMA, and in none of those cases has there been an unexpected negative effect as a result of the drug.
This high success rate can be attributed to MAPS extensive screening process before studies. For example, in studies conducted on PTSD sufferers, participants must exhibit chronic and treatment-resistant PTSD, meaning subjects must have tried other medications or psychotherapy treatments for PTSD and they must have not worked.
Additionally, MAPS tests for specific factors known to increase the risk of taking MDMA. This includes exceptionally high blood pressure and neurological conditions.
Photo courtesy of Bob Bob.
Right now, MAPS is primarily focused on providing treatment for three designated conditions: PTSD, anxiety associated with life-threatening illness, and social anxiety that often accompanies autism in adults.
If and when the FDA approves MDMA, MAPS predicts that the drug will be administered for other purposes as well. But as Burge points out, these prescriptions will be recommended in conjunction with therapy and will never be administered as a take-home treatment.
While MAPS also has conducted studies in which they administered LSD and other psychedelic substances such as Ayahuasca and Ibogaine, they do not expect these drugs to become available on a prescription level in the near future.
In response to skeptics that believe that FDA approval of MDMA prescriptions will lead to abuse of the substance, Burge insists that this has been a “general trajectory of prescription drug use in America.”
Instead of fearing the possible negative ramifications of an FDA approval, MAPS has created a number of public education initiatives.
MAPS has also devoted a considerable amount of time to community outreach in the form of their Psychedelic Harm Reduction Program “Zendo” which sends therapeutic staff to musical festivals and venues to create “compassionate spaces where concert-goers can retreat to if they are experiencing negative effects from psychedelic substances.”
“We’re trying to reach people in every generation and across the cultural landscape,” Burge says. “From senior Republicans all the way down to the 18-year-old who used LSD for the first time last weekend at a rave.”
With psychedelic studies gaining more and more recognition in the media, such a feat may not be all that difficult.