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Ecstacy, more formally MDMA or 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine, is a drug commonly considered a designer drug that is common among young users at parties (often termed raves). Although it has a long history, the drug only came into popular use in the 1980’s when it was learned that its psychoactive effects enhanced certain experiences. The problem is, as with most Schedule I substances, that the drug can have lingering adverse effects which can threaten health and lead, eventually, to death. The short-term effects can seem positive, but if used consistently the drug can lead to many significant health issues. Ecstacy can be purchased in both a tablet and a powdered form, in which the tablets themselves are available in many different shapes and colors. It is attractive to young people for its short-term effect, the fact that it seems to have little chance of becoming addictive and because it has become popular as an aid to increase sexual pleasure.
Ecstacy itself (at least the drug of that name) has not long been in existence. However, the chemical compound that comprises ecstacy was first synthesized in the early part of the last century. MDMA was first produced by Merck laboratories in Germany in 1912. As with many other chemical preparations, the initial production of MDMA was an accident or rather it was just a chemical stepping stone to another product. Merck had little interest in MDMA and did not use the compound for any reason until about 1959 when it was studied along with other possible stimulants.
Other companies outside of Merck were working with MDMA and similar compounds but there reasons are unclear. Likely it was to find stimulants that could help in occupations such as the military. However, the first usage of MDMA as an illicit hallucinogen did not happen until the 1970’s.
According to a BBC article, Alexander Shulgin, a chemist who had worked for Dow, synthesized MDMA and began testing it, on himself, to determine its properties. He found that when given in small doses it decreased inhibitions and gave him greater clarity of thought. Understanding this, he wanted to see if there were any therapeutic applications and introduced it to a therapist friend of his named Leo Zeff. It was determined that a therapeutic does (likely very small) allowed patients in psychotherapy to talk more freely and advance their case more quickly. At this time, since the drug was only introduced during therapy sessions, it was controlled and was unknown to the larger public.
Unfortunately, the therapeutic distribution of the drug led to its popularity for nontherapeutic uses. According to MDMA.net, a group of doctors in Boston began synthesizing and distributing the drug, but they kept it on a relatively small scale. However, one of their number formed the so-called “Texas Group” which began making the drug and selling it in large quantities. The reason for its original control was to make sure that the FDA did not schedule the drug as they had others which were thought to have a therapeutic effect. The Texas Group had none of these qualms beginning a large distribution at clubs and parties which began the widespread nationwide use of the drug. They also coined the name “Ecstacy” to make the drug more marketable.
Due to its increased popularity, MDMA began to receive attention from government agencies and was scheduled in the UK in 1977. In the United States though, it was a longer fight to make uncontrolled use of the drug illicit because of the therapeutic community. Eventually, According to MDMA.net, pressure increased due to findings that production was increasing astronomically and evidence of neurotoxicity was found. It was finally confirmed as a Schedule I narcotic in mid-1985.
Famously, the increased use of Ecstacy followed an underground dance culture that was popularized beginning in the 1990’s. “Raves” were parties organized with youth and college students in mind that were meant to push being uninhibited to its limits. Because Ecstacy has psychoactive properties that increase sensitivity to external sensations as well as decreasing inhibition, it was a perfect drug for a wild party scene. At one point the drug was the second most popular drug in the United States next to marijuana. It has continued as a designer drug for parties and youth culture in general, but its popularity has waned somewhat since 2010.
Short Term Effects
The reason for this popularity was that in the short-term, Ecstacy causes euphoria and heightens the senses. Like many drugs, when it is taken in small doses the effects of MDMA can be very pleasant and do not seem debilitating. Besides the aforementioned euphoria, Ecstacy can also engender feelings of: amiability, empathy, serenity, approval, pleasure sympathy and a greater sensitivity to the world around you. When an individual is experiencing such pleasurable feelings and having a good time with friends, it would follow that increased use would enhance the feelings to an even greater degree. Unfortunately, this is not the case. It is only with extended use that the drug is seen to be a danger.
Long Term Effects
There is no way of knowing when the adverse effects of any drug will begin in an individual, but increased usage, beyond controlled dosage recommendation, of any drug will cause problems. Useful substances such as aspirin (a blood thinner) or insulin (helps regulate blood glucose levels) can become life threatening when taken at too high a dose, or increased levels over an extended period of time. However, as a Schedule I drug, MDMA is seen to have no medical viability. So even small doses can be problematic. But it is long-term usage which leads to adverse physical effects that can end in death.
Some of these effects are: depression, anxiety and panic attacks, psychosis, increases in heart rate and blood pressure, and decreases the body’s ability to regulate temperature.
Though most of these are not immediately life-threatening, prolonged, or chronic use, may cause an individual to spiral out of control. Because Ecstacy activates slower than other drugs such as heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine, it does not seem to be addictive. However, animal studies have proven that it is indeed habit forming. This means that an individual can become addicted to Ecstacy and face the same recovery struggles that they would with any other addictive substance.
To avoid Ecstacy it is necessary to understand where it is most likely to be used, its adverse effects and how it can be recognized. Unfortunately, Ecstacy comes in many different forms so it can be easily disguised. Tablets often look like chewable children’s vitamins taking the form of a Ninja Turtle or a dinosaur. Also, dyes are used to produce all the colors of the rainbow. This is meant to make the drug appear harmless, but it remains potentially a very dangerous substance. One of the problems with any illicit substance is that they are rarely pure, having been “cut” with other substances which can enhance side effects.
At Nsight Psychology & Addiction we have found that among the most effective treatments for Ecstacy abuse is cognitive behavioral therapy. These types of sessions are designed to help create change in the patient’s thinking, expectations, modify behaviors, and to increase coping skills. Drug abuse recovery support groups may be more effective in combination with behavioral interventions to support long-term, drug-free recovery.
NSIGHT Psychology and Addiction is an emotionally focused treatment program that emphasizes the underlying mental health and emotional issues that precede and reinforce addiction in order to create lasting change.