An illegal drug may hold the key to a “fairy-tale” ending for patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, addiction or depression. The drug is 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), or ecstasy, and it reduces anxiety and fear by suppressing the amygdala. At the same time, MDMA promotes a sense of well-being and social bonding by increasing the amounts of dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and prolactin found in the body. The only trouble is, ecstasy has been banned by the FDA since 1985, and as a Schedule I drug, is very difficult to get permission to use in clinical trials, not to mention mainstream clinical practice.
One scientific research group, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), was persistent enough to get approval for a small trial of MDMA for PTSD patients. In the trial, psychiatrist Michael Mithoefer had PTSD patients ingest an MDMA pill at the beginning of their psychiatry session. During the session, they were asked to revisit their traumatic experiences. The results, recently reported in Scientific American, are impressive. Before the trial, patients had an average Clinician Administered PTSD score of 79. After the trial, those scores dropped to an average of 23.4 (compared with 60 for patients given a placebo). Three and a half years later, 13 of 16 patients no longer even meet the criteria for PTSD, an outcome almost unheard of in the treatment for PTSD.
There are many reasons philosophers are skeptical of the Drug War (see, for example, Doug Husak or Michael Huemer). Ecstasy’s ability to cure once-incurable PTSD, along with its promising treatments of other devastating psychological disorders, is yet another reason for the FDA to reconsider its position on criminalizing such useful substances.