Photo Illustration by Alex Williams/The Daily Beast
A new study urges trials of MDMA to treat anxiety in autistic adults, and it’s already being tested for PTSD. Is America ready to embrace Molly?
That was one of the original street names for MDMA, now better known as Molly, and it speaks volumes about what the drug actually does: by increasing the amount of serotonin in the bloodstream, it acts like a turbo-charged SSRI (the leading form of antidepressant). Sure, it makes you feel happy—but equally important to its devotees, it makes you feel open.
Now, science is catching up. A study published this week in the journal Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry is part of a spate of research arguing that MDMA could have psychotherapeutic benefits: this time, to treat symptoms of social anxiety, particularly in autistic adults.
To longtime friends of Molly, this is about as revelatory as learning that a gin and tonic can relieve social anxiety. But this latest study is part of a larger trend that may mark a turning point in our culture’s relationship to this particular substance.
Consider: the data on marijuana (and two generations’ longtime familiarity with it) has helped mainstream culture evolve from Reefer Madness and “Just Say No” to medical marijuana in 23 states and recreational marijuana in Colorado. Will Molly be next?
Conceivably—though there are some important differences.
First, the scientific evidence is encouraging but early. MDMA was first synthesized by Merck in 1912, but had little commercial use, and apart from a 1950s U.S. military experiment, lay dormant until it was “rediscovered” by psychedelic pioneer Alexander Shulgin around 1970. Fascinatingly, therapists and psychiatrists explored the therapeutic use of the drug, but tried to keep its existence under wraps, fearing it would be banned. As indeed it was, in 1986.
That led to twenty years of scientific silence—apart from a handful of poor experiments whose results were widely exaggerated by Drug Warrors, as the new study also describes—while MDMA exploded in popularity, as Ecstasy.. Only it wasn’t really MDMA; in 2007, an analysis of drug shipments showed that only 3 percent of U.S. Ecstasy tablets were pure MDMA.
The doors began to creak open in the late 2000s. By now, MDMA has been administered to over 1,100 individuals in clinical trials, with no serious adverse effects. As legalization activists have long insisted, it seems as though most of the problems with Molly come from impurities, overuse (especially in combination with other drugs), and what aficionados would call bad “set and setting,” like overcrowded dance clubs, dumb frat boys, and plain old bad ideas.
Further, the paper’s abstract notes that “As in the case with classic hallucinogens and other psychedelic drugs, MDMA catalyzes shifts toward openness and introspection that do not require ongoing administration to achieve lasting benefits. This infrequent dosing mitigates adverse event frequency and improves the risk/benefit ratio of MDMA, which may provide a significant advantage over medications that require daily dosing.”
In other words, unlike Zoloft or Celexa orAbilify, you don’t need to take MDMA every day in order to experience the benefits. Thus, potential long-term risks—in extremely high doses over long periods of time, MDMA can cause brain lesions—are significantly mitigated…