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Ecstasy Helps Trauma Victims Heal, Study Shows

Psychedelic dinners fund MAPS’ treatment of trauma patients with MDMA

RESEARCH ASSISTANCE Bryce Montgomery, content manager of MAPS, stands outside the nonprofit’s Mission Street office. PHOTO: JACOB PIERCE

A dinner of dolmas, tofu pot pie and Chicago-style deep-dish pizza has drawn an eclectic turnout of academics, ravers, techies, and artists. Even a toddler and a white blazer-and-aviators-clad financial adviser are in attendance at the bonfire hosted by husband-and-wife Nadia and Dmitry V.—both of them therapists and Russian émigrés.

It’s now the witching hour on a late-April Sunday in San Jose, and we’re about four-and-a-half hours into a potluck raising money for a kilo of pure MDMA. Or, as it’s colloquially known, molly or ecstasy.

“It’s great to have a whole night just devoted to psychedelics,” Dmitry says. “There needs to be a coming out in this community.”

Despite the talk of “coming out” for the cause, few people wanted their full name associated with the gathering. One attendee remarked on the dilemma of wanting to do her part to legitimize the psychedelic scene with her open support, but being afraid of the stigma associated with drugs that are as criminalized as cocaine.

Indeed, the federal powers that be regulate acid and psilocybin mushrooms as closely as they do crack and heroin. The fundraiser marks one of hundreds around the globe to benefit the Santa Cruz-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), an organization devoted to researching the therapeutic value of psychedelic drugs and cannabis.

Their primary goal of these psychedelic dinners is to collect $400,000 to buy 2.2 pounds of pharmaceutical-grade MDMA as a potential legal treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. MAPS spokesman Brad Burge says that’s how much it costs for an entirely new supply approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

MAPS has been using a batch of MDMA made in the 1980s by Purdue University chemist David Nichols. But regulators want to keep their eyes on the entire manufacturing process before it signs off on third-phase clinical trials for up to 400 patients.

As part of the research, patients take a carefully measured dose of MDMA and spend the day talking about their trauma with therapists. Psychotherapy in general and PTSD therapy in particular focus on exposing a patient to distressing thoughts to eventually desensitize them. MDMA’s capacity to suspend a person’s fight-or-flight instinct, which shifts into overdrive in people suffering from PTSD, allows them to face their traumatic memories until those thoughts lose the brunt of their power.

“The immediate effects of MDMA make people feel intimate, so there’s that bonding, that connection,” Burge says. “People tend to become more present, which lends itself well to therapy, of course.”

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning causa sui The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker points out that humanity goes to just about any length to avoid contemplating one’s own mortality—even if that means feeling less alive in the process. People wounded by trauma, to a great degree, develop a heightened death-awareness.

Becker derided psychedelic drugs as a Dionysian excess. “Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness,” he wrote. Ironically, though, MAPS seems certain that a particular strain of chemical fix can help confront rather than escape one of the greatest agonies of the human condition: consciousness of our inevitable demise and the fatality of life, a sense heightened to a debilitating degree by trauma.

“On some level, psychedelics push you to the brink of understanding that you’re mortal,” one of the dinner guests explained at the San Jose event, after a colorful telling of her most memorable, most jarring psilocybin trips. “You know? You’re forced to confront those fears. A lot of people are wound really tight, or stuck to this world. Sometimes you have to force your way outside of yourself to realize that to be unafraid of death means accepting that they’re part of nature and that there’s a lot more possibility than you imagined.”

Some may find it odd to hear MDMA classified as “psychedelic,” although Burge explains that while all hallucinogens are psychedelic, not all psychedelics have hallucinogenic effects. The drug may not be a hallucinogen, he says, “but definitely has psychedelic, mind-manifesting, or mind-expanding impact.”

The first two rounds of clinical trials have gone exceptionally well, with success rates up to 83 percent, according to psychiatrists involved in the research. After a few rounds of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, several patients who took part say their symptoms of trauma have all but vanished. Doctors hesitate to use the word “cure,” but four years past the first double-blind trials, the results look promising. Think, on the other hand, of the status quo in which doctors prescribe daily medication to dull symptoms indefinitely without getting to the root of the problem.

“It took a lot of work on the part of MAPS to get to this point, to be on the brink of FDA approval,” Burge says. “MDMA had been legal until 1985 and had been used in therapy. When it was criminalized, that put all the legal, above-ground therapeutic use to a stop. It also stopped major funding overnight. That probably set us back 30 years. There’s a lot of catching up to do.”

Psychopharmacological scholar Rick Doblin founded MAPS a year after the ban, in 1986, to research the clinical benefits of psychedelics and cannabis. While trippers generally remain discreet about their activities, especially of recreational use, MAPS has made a point of operating scrupulously above board. Under Doblin’s purview and guided by his Harvard University-honed expertise in public policy, the nonprofit has published journals, statistics, action studies and methodical protocols that slowly chipped away at some of the counterculture stigma attached to psychedelics.

The method took a few decades but seems to be paying off. To date, MAPS has raised more than $26 million, largely from individual donors and small foundations, to study psychedelics and educate the people about their risks and benefits, while it continues blazing trails throughout the drug research industry.

Last month, MAPS announced the first-ever study into medical cannabis with the full approval of U.S. regulatory groups. The nonprofit received a $2.2 million grant from the state of Colorado to fund research on veterans suffering from PTSD in a groundbreaking study that has the support of both the FDA and the Drug Enforcement Agency.

“We’ve had to combat years of negative propaganda, negative science to prove that there are legitimate contexts for these type of substances,” Burge says. “We’re always trying to bring more people into the fold by informing not just people who are already involved in psychedelic circles, but also the ones who may be on the fence or don’t know enough about it yet.”

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