Health

Truth Behind the Push to Legalize a Street Drug

A carefully monitored drug therapy is helping some veterans with PTSD

Tony Macie, a former sergeant in the U.S. Army who is now retired, spent 15 months in Iraq during the surge. He left the Army due to a back injury and returned home to Vermont — where he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The Department of Veterans Affairs treated him with anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications, along with therapy. They also gave him painkillers for his back, to which he became addicted.

Today, Macie credits 3,4methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA) psychotherapy for helping him break that addiction and overcome his PTSD.

MDMA is also known popularly as the street drug Ecstasy or Molly. But there are important differences. 

It may sound crazy, but Macie believes MDMA saved his life. He completed MDMA therapy through the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a non-profit based in Santa Cruz, California, which advocates for using psychedelics in the medical field.

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MAPS is currently studying whether MDMA-assisted psychotherapy can help heal both the psychological and emotional damage caused not by war, as well as by sexual assault, violent crime, and other traumas.

The drug is currently in Phase 2 clinical trials in the U.S. as well as around the globe. MAPS has reported that so far, “83 percent of the subjects receiving MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in a pilot study no longer met the criteria for PTSD, and every patient who received a placebo and then went on to receive MDMA-assisted psychotherapy experienced significant and lasting improvements.” The studies are published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

“I went from struggling to go out and be sociable to founding a non-profit and living and working in Cambodia,” said Macie, who founded Expert Exchange to help rebuild the lives of people in impoverished areas.

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“I am better. I’d hesitate to say anyone who has ever been to war is going to be cured. You cannot undo that, and that experience is something you can only hope to grow from and learn,” said Macie. “That is what the MDMA helped me with — gave me back my true inner strength.”

It is vital to note that MDMA is not exactly the same as Ecstasy or Molly, according to the MAPS. Those drugs may contain MDMA but also can include other adulterants.

During this type of psychotherapy, MDMA is administered while the patient is with a therapist — it is not a take-home medicine. MDMA may increase the effectiveness of psychotherapy because it releases the hormones oxytocin and prolactin, which assists patients in relaxing and discussing painful memories more honestly. Additionally, it lowers activity in the brain’s amygdala, which becomes overactive in PTSD patients.

By 2021, MAPS is hoping to gain U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval to make the medication available for MDMA therapy to treat PTSD.

MDMA is not exactly the same as Ecstasy or Molly, according to the MAPS. Those drugs may contain MDMA but also can include other adulterants.

“We’re doing clinical studies to make it a prescription drug to be used only in therapy,” Brad Burge, communications and marketing director at MAPS, told LifeZette. “Also, we’re not doing research on Ecstasy or Molly but on pure MDMA. More than 50 percent of Ecstasy sold on the street doesn’t contain any MDMA.”

Legalization Effects?
For people facing hardships as Macie did, FDA approval may sound ideal. But would it contribute to more black-market availability or drug abuse? Burge said that’s not the case.

“MDMA is not close to being legalized except for use in controlled therapeutic settings, so we hope people take away the facts, not the spin,” he added.

Mona Shattell, a nursing professor at Rush University in Chicago who specializes in mental health, said more studies are needed to see if MDMA therapy is a real solution. The full-day sessions with two therapists, plus an overnight stay with intense follow-up, would be costly and resource-intensive, she said. If treatment could be shortened with as many positive effects, she added, it may be more widely adopted.

“If that was the case, if MDMA was made widely available for medical use, I don’t think the public should panic,” she said. “The drug would be controlled, prescribed. I don’t know if the recreational use will decrease, but I certainly don’t think medical MDMA would be a threat to the public.”

MAPS is now working alongside the FDA on Phase 3 studies. If the success rate continues at a high level, a “new drug” application will be filed in an effort get MDMA-assisted psychotherapy approved as a prescription treatment for PTSD.

MAPS reported it is also studying MDMA-assisted therapy for autistic adults with social anxiety and MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for people with anxiety that is related to life-threatening illnesses.

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