Strobe lights, loud music, hours of dancing, heavy bass, colorful clothing . . . how would you complete this list? Probably with Molly. When we think of MDMA (or Molly, or Ecstasy), most people are inclined to picture ravers, music festivals, and chaotic recreational use. So it’s not outrageous to say we’re completely flipping the switch with a medical trial in which MDMA is used to treat alcohol addiction.
I’ll repeat: doctors from the Imperial College London have performed a trial in which they used MDMA to treat alcoholism. In addition, early results from the trial suggest the methods might work better than standard treatment.
What Exactly is MDMA?
Because the extent of most people’s knowledge of MDMA is simply that ravers use it, it’s important to understand what the drug is before getting into the research findings.
MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine) is an amphetamine derivative. It’s a synthetic drug that acts as both a stimulant and hallucinogen. It can increase energy, distort time and perception, and enhance sensory enjoyment. The drug can also act as an entactogen, which means it can increase empathy and self-awareness. MDMA also goes by the names Ecstasy, E, and Molly.
MDMA and Psychotherapy
Ecstasy is currently a Schedule I drug in the US. However, MDMA was used as a legal prescription to increase the effectiveness of psychotherapy from the 1970s to 1985 in the US.
MDMA helps to induce a positive-toned cognitive-emotional state. Under the influence of MDMA, a person may be better able to process past trauma because the drug impairs the fear response. These effects are the reason doctors would want to use MDMA alongside psychotherapy. If a person feels liberated from their fear, anxiety, and inclination to numb in response to past trauma, then they’re much better able to speak about it, process it, and heal.
More information on trial use of MDMA in psychotherapy can be found in this study.
UK’s Trial Using MDMA to Treat Alcoholism
Doctors at the Imperial College London performed a trial in attempt to reveal whether MDMA could be used to treat alcohol addiction when used in conjunction with psychotherapy.
The first stage of the trial focused on whether the drug was safe to use. Participants first completed preliminary screenings, which included medical and psychological tests. Then, the study’s participants receive eight weeks of psychotherapy. During the third and sixth weeks, participants are given a 125mg dose of 99.9% pure MDMA. There is also an optional 62.5mg dose after two hours. They spend eight hours with specialists — both a psychologist and psychiatrist are present — in a hospital setting during psychotherapy sessions. The patients essentially lead the session topics, speaking about whatever comes to them.
Patients stay overnight after the MDMA-assisted psychotherapy sessions. They speak with specialists every day for a week over the phone to monitor sleep quality, mood, and suicide risk. The data collected actually revealed no evidence of withdrawal or any other comedown symptoms.
Dr. Ben Sessa, an addiction psychiatrist and the trial’s leader, suggests that the negative comedown that people associate with Ecstasy is more a factor of raving and clubbing than it is of the drug itself.
Results Are In!
Eleven people have completed the safety study. Of those eleven participants, Sessa explains that five have remained completely sober, one has completely relapsed, and “four or five [participants] have had one or two drinks but wouldn’t reach the diagnosis of alcohol disorder.”
Results are compared with the much higher number of recovering alcoholics in England who relapse after going through standard treatment:
“With the very best that medical science can work with, 80% of people are drinking within three years post alcohol detox,” Sessa clarifies.
The results prove that it’s safe to use MDMA to treat alcoholism in conjunction with psychotherapy under these monitored circumstances. They also suggest that the methods could be more effective than standard treatment. However, further placebo research is needed to support claims of relative effectiveness.