Scientists Are Discovering a Surprisingly Healthy Reason to Use MDMA

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Could ecstasy one day help patients facing the end of their lives move forward into the unknown with acceptance and dignity?

Even the Food and Drug Administration is on board with promising research in California that aims to investigate whether MDMA could be a useful end-of-life treatment for terminally ill patients uncomfortable with the prospect of their own deaths. If it works as intended, very sick people could one day ease their pain with physician-administered ecstasy.

The background: The study in question is being conducted by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a Santa Cruz, California-based research organization that supports scientific research into the potential medical applications of psychoactive drugs.

According to Reuters, the impending study will involve "at least a dozen" patients suffering from life-threatening or terminal diseases such as cancer who have a prognosis of nine months or more. The goal will be to determine whether ingesting the substance in a controlled, psychiatrist-assisted setting can help patients with terminal illnesses face the end of their lives with less fear and anxiety.

MDMA produces intense feelings of euphoria and social interconnectedness, resulting in a four to five hour experience of potential psychological pliability. Principal investigator Philip Wolfson told the San Francisco Chronicle, "[Ecstasy is] a substance that supports deep, meaningful and rapidly effective psychotherapy."

"It's a really interesting and a very powerful new approach," Thomas Insel, who heads the National Institute of Mental Health, told the Chronicle. "It's not just taking MDMA. It's taking it in the context of a treatment that involves improved insight and increased skills and using this in the broader context of psychotherapy."

While MDMA is often stigmatized as a dangerous and harmful party drug, previous research from David Nutt, who was dismissed from a senior U.K. advisory position for advocating drug law reform in 2009, has found through research it's actually a remarkably safe substance. He and a team from the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs ranked various drugs based on the risk they pose both to users and society at large and concluded MDMA was one of the safest common drugs out there.

Source: Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs
Source: Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs

Why you should care: The MDMA-centric trial is just one of several psychiatric studies being done on the potential utility of controlled substances to help assist fatally ill people leave this life comfortably.

One conducted by Harbor-UCLA Medical Center researcher Charles Grob administered psilocybin, the active ingredient in some varieties of hallucinogenic mushrooms, to 12 terminally ill patients. Another conducted by McLean University scientist John Halpern used MDMA in a similar study in two patients with stage 4 cancer.

Grob told the New York Times that all of these studies had ended with "consistently good results," and that's not even considering the potential uses for hallucinogens and other psychedelics in treatment of drug addiction, depression and even autism. Though the dangers of incorrectly dosing MDMA or another psychedelic substances are very real, that shouldn't necessarily count out all the potential benefits that can be gained through safe administration of an entire set of substances.

Clearly, it's time to ignore the stigma and look at the science.