At present, people who use MDMA tend to pick up their "prescription" from a shady-looking man standing on a street corner, but a worldwide network of researchers is conducting a range of clinical trials that could result in the drug being distributed by pharmacies in as little as five years.
MDMA – or 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, to give it its full name – is the main active ingredient in the party drug ecstasy. Though the harmful effects of the chemical remain debatable, the fact that it is not properly regulated means it is often cut with other dangerous chemicals, and can therefore be pretty risky to take in a nightclub.
When ingested under medically supervised conditions, however, the drug’s effects have shown significant therapeutic potential. This is largely because of the way that MDMA causes the brain to release a surge of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in mood regulation. Aside from generating an uncontrollable impulse to dance, this effect also tends to increase users’ feelings of openness and love for both themselves and others. Because of this, it is often referred to as an “empathogen.”
A number of researchers have attempted to take advantage of this by incorporating MDMA into psychotherapeutic treatments down the years – with considerable reported success – although the fact that the drug is currently a Schedule 1 substance in the U.S. has prevented this from becoming a mainstream practice.
However, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is currently funding a number of trials around the world, which it hopes will prove the efficacy and safety of MDMA as a legitimate medical substance. The current aim is to obtain approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the therapeutic use of the drug by 2021.
One such study is being conducted in Los Angeles, where researchers are investigating the potential of MDMA to reduce social anxiety in autistic adults. Another, taking place in Marin, California, is looking at how the drug may be used to help people with terminal illnesses come to terms with their condition. A third is being conducted in Canada, where scientists hope to use MDMA to alleviate the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The majority of the trials being supported by MAPS are now reaching the end of Phase II, during which the efficacy and safety of drugs are tested on relatively small numbers of subjects. Once this stage is successfully passed, treatments move on to Phase III, in which larger groups of participants are recruited in order to study these effects in greater detail.
While there’s still some way to go, researchers are hopeful that their work could soon take this drug out of the hands of street dealers, and make going to the doctor a much more enjoyable experience.