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Can MDMA be good for you?

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Catriona White
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MDMA could be making the transition from party drug to legal medicine in as little as four years.

The powerful psychoactive drug, known as 'mandy' or 'molly', has been given the green light by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be trialled as a treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. That could make it a legal medicine as soon as 2021.

It’s a cause the not-for-profit organization Maps (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) has been working towards for 30 years.

Maps has funded six trials with patients who suffered from PTSD. One found that, following the MDMA treatment, 83% no longer met the criteria for PTSD - compared with 25% of those given a placebo.

James 'CJ' Hardin took part in one of Maps’ MDMA-assisted psychotherapy trials.

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“I am one of the lucky few that got this amazing treatment,” he recently told The Guardian. "I want everybody to have this opportunity to recover.”

The treatment involves patients taking the purest form of MDMA (methylenedioxy-methylamphetamine) three times over a month.

They take the drug as part of a six-to-eight hour talking therapy session. They're also given weekly counselling without the drug.

The thinking is that MDMA reduces patients’ fear and hesitation, so they recall their trauma without the usual avalanche of negative feelings. This means that, with the counsellor’s help, they can finally process things and move forwards.

Brad Burge from Maps told me, “It’s not necessarily a ‘fun time’ – quite the opposite. A lot of patients described these therapy sessions as the hardest thing they’ve ever done. MDMA simply provides a chemical safety blanket for them to talk about their experiences.”

pillsBBC Three

The medical use of MDMA isn’t actually a new thing. Before it was made illegal in 1977 (1985 in the US), MDMA was sometimes used by psychotherapists to aid therapy sessions.

The idea that psychoactive drugs have healing or spiritual properties has been around for thousands of years, from the use of the hallucinogenic drink ayahuasca in spiritual rituals in South America, to magic mushrooms taken to cure depression in the 1970s.

Some recreational users have been anecdotally reporting MDMA’s positive effects on their mental health for years.

One student at Newcastle University told BBC Three, “I struggle with depression, and MDMA is really therapeutic for me. I think for lads in general, it’s pretty hard to talk about your emotions. When we take MDMA it sort of loosens that up. It breaks down barriers.”

Tom Elliot, a counsellor with the Counseling Directory told me, “It’s not uncommon for people to make themselves feel better through self-medicating with drugs like MDMA.”

But, unlike the clinical drug therapy, recreational users are self-medicating with dangerous, unregulated and illegal substances. Fifty-seven MDMA related deaths were recorded last year – a record high, partly due to a recent surge in the strength of MDMA across Britain.

Jennifer Reich, 27, is a recovering addict who now works as a qualified addiction counsellor for Addiction Helper. She used MDMA to battle her own depression, and it’s not an approach to mental health she recommends.

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“It’s not a long-term solution. You get an unrealistic expectation of how quick and easy it should be to feel happy. And the comedowns, for someone who is already suffering from depression, can be very detrimental.”

Professor Andrew Parrott, a psychologist at Swansea University who has studied the brains of chronic MDMA users, is worried that the approval of MDMA for therapeutic use could end up encouraging potentially dangerous recreational use.

“It sends the message that this drug will help you solve your problems, when often it just creates problems,” he said. Long-term MDMA misuse can cause depression or anxiety. “This is a messy drug we know can do damage.”

Brad points out that medicinal MDMA and street MDMA are totally different beasts.

“We’re talking about pure MDMA in the trial. Ecstasy or ‘molly’, which gets called MDMA in a lot of headlines – they are not the same. More than 50% of ecstasy doesn’t contain any MDMA at all.

Tom Elliott at the Counselling Directory is open-minded about MDMA’s clinical benefits.

“If you had a drug trialed by the name of ‘X’, so you didn’t know it was MDMA, and there was an 83% success rate in your trial - what would you say about a drug like that?” he says.

Only 50% of drugs that get to this stage go on to be approved. But Brad is optimistic.

“PTSD is just one condition MDMA could potentially treat. We’re also doing trials to treat social anxiety in autistic adults, even trials to treat alcohol addiction.”

For now, though, Brad – and any interested PTSD sufferers – will have to wait.

BBC Three documentary Drugs Map of Britain: Newcastle - Super-strength Ecstasy charts the highs and lows of recreational MDMA use in Newcastle.