The How and the Who Behind Ecstasy (MDMA)

For some reason, I associate MDMA (aka ecstasy, aka E, aka X) with the ’90s, the rave scene, and furry dice. Some of this makes sense: E was and still is a popular recreational drug that’s seen most often in the dance and club scene. But its history stretches to way back in the early 20th century.

How is MDMA produced?

MDMA was first patented in 1913 by Merck. Why it was initially developed is not entirely known; Wikipedia posits that MDMA was looked to stop abnormal bleeding, while other sites, such as, suggest that the drug may have been developed as a weight loss supplement or appetite suppressant. Either way, the drug didn’t really take off until the latter part of the 20th century. Starting in the 1950s, the U.S. Army conducted some tests on the effects of MDMA. In the 1970s (of course) in Berkeley (of course), a group of students introduced MDMA to Professor Alexander Shulgin, who was so enamored with the drug that he started producing some on his own. He was the MDMA proselytizer, and let’s be honest – the 1970s was a hell of a time for psychoactive drugs. By the 1980s, MDMA was becoming more popular, and the Drug Enforcement Administration decided to shut everything down. MDMA became a controlled substance in May of 1985.

To make MDMA, you take safrole, an oil extracted from the sassafras tree (interesting fact: sassafras used to be used in root beer; however, it turns out that sassafras can damage the liver and cause cancer, so sassafras was removed from the formula. Of course, MDMA users do not ingest enough safrole to worry about those side effects). The safrole is then converted into MDMA through a series of complicated chemical reactions (safrole can be converted to isosafrole first, or it can be directly converted into a chemical called MDP2P, and from there it’s smoother sailing to get to MDMA). MDMA doesn’t really exist in nature. Safrole does, but unlike, say, cocaine and the coca leaf, there is little similarity between MDMA and safrole (for more information, check out the Wikipedia article on MDMA).

What are the short-term effects of MDMA?

Well, you feel great. Things are more interesting, you feel so connected with everyone and everything – the whole we-are-one-world feeling really gets driven home. For about four hours after taking MDMA, people feel more social, more positive, and happier about basically everything. MDMA releases a flood of chemicals that make people feel good: dopamine and serotonin are there, as is norepinephrine. In addition to releasing those feel-good neurochemicals, MDMA can also change the way the chemical’s receptors work. Because MDMA has been suggested as a drug to be used in psychotherapy, there have been a number of studies that look at its effect on the brain. Most focus on the role of serotonin, the chemical that seems to be responsible for most of the good feeling associated with MDMA. Additional work looked at the role of oxytocin neurons – when these were blocked, the effect of MDMA on social behavior was lessened, suggesting that stimulating these neurons plays a significant role in getting that MDMA feeling.

MDMA is a stimulant, so it plays the same tricks on the body as most other stimulants: the body temperature and heart rate rise, people start to sweat, pupils dilate, appetite decreases, teeth get ground, and people with penises have a hard time (har har) getting erections. Here’s the deal: it is extremely, extremely rare for someone to overdose on MDMA. Extremely rare. Generally, if something goes wrong, it’s either because the MDMA was not really MDMA (or it was cut with something hazardous), or there are many drugs being mixed at once, or it’s something not life-threatening. People will suffer from overheating (hyperthermia) and hyponatremia (low blood sodium levels caused by drinking too much water), and some of these issues, if left untreated, can result in death. Drinking sports drinks, like Gatorade, and making sure that the body is not overheating (sometimes a difficult task in a club/rave/dance environment) can ensure that people who need medical attention get it.

Up to about four days to a week after the initial drug use, the person can feel tired, irritable, depressed, and have difficulty concentrating. There may even be a bit of an afterglow, where they feel more connected and more empathetic than before. These side effects are generally fleeting.

What are the long term effects of MDMA?

The jury is still out on this one. Some studies claim that there may be a greater risk for chronic depression for habitual or long-time users of MDMA. This is due to the changes in neuro-chemical production and re-uptake caused by the drug. Some studies also suggest that chronic MDMA users may have more memory problems than non-MDMA users; however, the evidence for this is mixed as well. A study that linked MDMA to Parkinson’s Disease has since been retracted. For the record, having mixed evidence doesn’t mean that there is no effect of MDMA on future depression or memory loss; it just means that the science is fresh and new and people are still working hard to figure out exactly what is going on. The long term effects are a big unknown.

While the National Institute on Drug Abuse claims that 43% of MDMA users show signs of dependence, there is little information that suggests significant long-term effects of the drug, let alone a strong threat of overdose. This is not to say that an overdose or a death from hyperthermia cannot happen, and I do not wish to discount the deaths that have occurred – I just want to make clear that this drug carries a substantially smaller risk than either of the two drugs (heroin and cocaine) I’ve written about before. There is no specific treatment for MDMA addiction.

Who uses MDMA?

Generally, MDMA is used by white teens and young adults. It is a relatively cheap drug and is a big part of the club scene, making it particularly appealing to that demographic. In 2003, the National Drug Intelligence Center reported that more than 10% of high school students have tried MDMA before; however, by 2010, the Monitoring the Future Survey reported that only 7.3% of 12th graders had used MDMA in their lifetimes. MDMA may be making a bit of a comeback: the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (same link as above) reported that 1.1 million Americans used MDMA for the first time in 2009, up from 894,000 in 2008.

2 replies on “The How and the Who Behind Ecstasy (MDMA)”

I’m at work so I can’t really leave a thought out response – just wanted to say that there’s a great documentary “Ecstasy Rising” that you can find on youtube that I really liked. I feel like a lot of people confuse Ecstasy with Meth (which it’s sometimes cut with) and it’s a really misunderstood drug. I read a really interesting article about a push to make it prescriptive for people suffering from PTSD, and the only reason it’s not going through is because it’s not profitable to the pharmecutical companies, but I’m not sure where I read it.

My love affair with E has ended as the last two times I did it I threw up all night so it wasn’t fun – but God knows what it was cut with, just another reason that the war on drugs hurts people more than it helps them…

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