The Surprising History of MDMA

June 4th 2015

Thor Benson

"U.S. WILL BAN 'ECSTASY,' A HALLUCINOGENIC DRUG." That was the New York Times headline on June 1, 1985. About 73 years after the drug was first created, the most powerful country in the world decided to ban it indefinitely. 

MDMA, or 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine, if you prefer, is a psychoactive drug. Some classify it as a hallucinogen, but only certain people feel hallucinogenic effects from taking it. It was patented by the multinational pharmaceutical company Merck in 1912. Legend goes the company attempted to create an appetite suppressant, but it pulled the drug from production when it was found to have strange side effects. 

This is a story publications have been running for years, and it was even found on the DEA's website for some time, but Merck cleared it up in 2006, as The Guardian reported. Merck decided to have some employees dig through its patents and figure out what really happened. According to the company, MDMA did come around in 1912, but it was supposed to be a blood clotting agent. It wasn't tested on animals or humans when it was first developed, so the psychological effects were not known at the time.

Merck eventually did limited trials on animals in 1927 while trying to create synthetic adrenaline. It is also known that the U.S. Army tested MDMA and mescaline on animals during the early 1950s to observe the effects, as they were looking for a new chemical warfare substance. It was allegedly tested on humans by a Merck chemist in 1959, but there are tenuous records of this. In 1976, Dr. Alexander Shulgin, a former scientist with the chemical company Dow, synthesized the drug and took it himself. He had been advising a chemistry group at San Francisco State University when a student told him about the effects of taking MDMA.

Shulgin was an early advocate for clinical MDMA use and got the drug a lot of media attention. Some pills had been found in the Chicago area in the early 1970s, and it seems certain citizens were already experimenting with the drug before Shulgin brought it to the country's attention scientifically.

Two things happened in the late 1970s and early 1980s that cemented MDMA in its current position. First, it quickly became a club drug after earning a reputation as a euphoric substance to consume at any major party. Secondly, therapists began experimenting with using MDMA to assist with therapy sessions, claiming it helped patients open up. Thanks to the club drug reputation it was gaining, the DEA instigated an emergency action to ban the drug in 1985, and it soon became a Schedule I narcotic. Schedule I drugs are "defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse." Though MDMA is said to have no physiologically addictive properties, it is thought by the federal government to be psychologically addictive. 

All of that said, MDMA is now being revived as a possibly beneficial therapeutic drug. Studies have found MDMA has been crucial in helping assist in therapy for patients struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). A 20-person study done by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in 2010 found MDMA-assisted psychotherapy cured 83 percent of PTSD sufferers. Furthermore, a study being done by MAPS was recently approved that will have MDMA being used to treat anxiety in patients suffering terminal illnesses.

MDMA remains a Schedule I drug, despite new research showing it could have medical benefits in certain scenarios, but that might change at some point. Only 20 years ago it seemed impossible that almost half of U.S. states would eventually develop medicinal marijuana laws, but now they have. 

If you're still unsure what MDMA, ecstasy and molly are, we've explained that in a previous post. Essentially, MDMA is the pure substance, molly is supposed to be the pure powder form of it but is often mixed with cheap filler and ecstasy is the pill form of MDMA that is often cut with one other drug.