Cracking the Lid of Medicine’s Pandora’s Box

By and

In 1912, a German drug manufacturer, Merck & Co. stumbled upon a drug that almost 90 years later would still be the subject of hot debate.

It’s called methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA). When individuals take the drug, it often times leads to hypothermia, confusion, difficulty walking, diarrhea, muscle jerks, irregular heart and blood pressures and liver abnormalities.

Sounds like something that should be criminalized, right?

Well, it was?16 years ago. But now it’s back. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved testing with MDMA, a drug more commonly known as Ecstasy.

With the FDA’s approval, members of the non-profit group, Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), are conducting a pilot study in hopes of developing Ecstasy as a prescription drug in treating people for posttraumatic stress disorder.

Self-described “psychedelic psychotherapists,” Michael Mithoefer, a psychiatrist and Annie Mithoefer, a psychiatric nurse, will conduct the study, where 20 subjects will undergo therapy after taking either a placebo or a single 125 milligram capsule of Ecstasy.

This is an early step in the clinical trial process and a dangerous first step in using the drug in a more expansive?and likely, more abuse-prone?setting. Fortunately, the group’s test still requires approval by the Institutional Review Board at the Medical University of South Carolina, where the study is taking place.

The trial approval issued by the FDA is an anomaly, especially given that the federal government launched a $5 million public- relations effort in August of 2000 to educate parents and the public about the dangers of Ecstasy.

After almost two decades of banishment by the government because of its ability to inflict “long-lasting and perhaps permanent damage to the heart, the brain, the kidneys and the nervous system,” MAPS is touting Ecstasy as an answer to debilitating stress disorders.

Ecstasy’s history illustrates that the odds are powerfully stacked up against the drug as a successful combatant against such disorders. Ecstasy’s potential dangers far outweigh MAPS’ shady suspicion of its future medicinal potential.

After its creation in 1912, Ecstasy all but disappeared until 1953, when the U.S. Army funded a secret University of Michigan animal study involving Ecstasy. In the peak of the Cold War, scientists researched the drug as a potential weapon. They found no compounds in the drug that were particularly toxic.

This is the only historic evidence portraying Ecstasy in a positive light. And even then, the researchers’ conclusion tells us not that Ecstasy is acceptable in the medical realm, but that the U.S. would not produce Ecstasy-laden bombs.

The damage that Ecstasy inflicts on its users is clear. When the drug causes a sense of pleasure to its users, it also wrecks havoc on the brain. With frightening precision, Ecstasy aims at brain cells that release serotonin, a chemical that is the primary regulator of mood. The drug causes these cells to expel their contents and flood the brain with serotonin.

Forcibly catapulting the body’s serotonin levels with Ecstasy is extremely hazardous. Taking the drug causes a rapid increase in body temperature?sometimes reaching heights of 110 degrees. At such extremes, the blood begins to coagulate.

Supporters of MAPS’ medical trials claim that those who experience the above effects of Ecstasy are not regulating their intake?they are irresponsible teenage “rave” users, who use Ecstasy merely as entertainment.

These supporters are blinding themselves to the underlying meaning of such deadly evidence. The drug’s history?including its nefarious role in the lives of high- school aged and college-aged individuals?is a blatant testimony to its volatile nature.

Even if researchers can effectively regulate the drug so individuals who take it for medicinal purposes don’t die, the devastating long-term effects are enough to keep the drug off the list of legitimate treatments for stress disorders.

In November of 1999, Johns Hopkins Neurotoxicologist George Ricaurte recorded for the first time the effects of Ecstasy on the human brain. He gave memory tests to people who had used Ecstasy two weeks before, and he compared those results to a control group who had never taken the drug.

His findings? Not only did the Ecstasy users fare worse on the tests than their control group counterparts, but computer images also showed detailed snapshots showing that the brains of Ecstasy users have fewer serotonin receptors than non-users.

Translation: The damage of Ecstasy is irreversible.

Admittedly, the mishandling of any drug can lead to irreversible damage. However, Ecstasy is different because of its dangerous track record.

It has gone from being what a police officer told the Richmond Times-Dispatch is a street drug “that will eclipse the crack-cocaine problem we experienced in the 1980s” to being a clinical substance approved by the FDA.

This dichotomous track record is a strong indication that the results of MAPS’ Ecstasy study deserve close examination and ultimate rejection from both the medical field and community at large.

Laura welcomes feedback at: [email protected] or send letters to the editor to: [email protected]