MDMA, the illegal raver stimulant commonly known by its street names molly and ecstasy, may be poised to attract a new demographic beyond young people looking to party: Individuals suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
In a Reddit.com Ask Me Anything session Wednesday, Tony Macie, a 27-year-old retired U.S. Army sergeant from Vernon, Vt., praised the drug for helping him conquer his PTSD symptoms when psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and antidepressants couldn't. He also said the drug, which he took only once as part of a psychiatric study, helped him realize he had been turned into a numb "zombie" because of his addiction to prescription painkillers.
"I use the strong emotion from trauma now as motivation instead of letting it bring me down," Macie wrote during the Reddit session. "I want to honor the fallen by doing and making change, not by secluding and numbing myself out."
Macie took MDMA through a clinical trial conducted by psychiatrist Michael Mithoefer, and his wife, psychiatric nurse Ann Mithoefer, in Charleston, S.C. The couple has tested the effects of MDMA on dozens of patients. Like other researchers who use illegal drugs in their studies, Mithoefer has approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration for the research.
Under the supervision of the Mithoefers, Macie was given a dose of MDMA while listening to music. Soon, he said his normally hyper-vigilant mind, a souvenir from two tours in Iraq, began to calm.
He stayed in the state of relaxed bliss for about an hour before his traumatic war memories began to resurface. The Mithoefers talked with Macie about whatever came up. The MDMA, he said, kept the therapy session flowing smoothly.
Macie explained the session in detail on Reddit:
After about an hour of just relaxing and being in the present is when memories started to come up. For me if I tried to push them away I would feel anxious, but if I dealt with it and processed the memory, I would have a wave of pleasure come over my body. I believe that the MDMA was showing me how to deal with my trauma and also that it is more beneficial for me to face trauma head on than to try and ignore it or suppress it. I had a lot of powerful realization that day.
Mithoefer is affiliated with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a nonprofit research group. He published his first study about positive effects MDMA can have on subjects who suffer from depression and PTSD in 2010. He described the benefits of his treatments in an email to HuffPost.
"MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, in our early studies, appears to allow people to revisit trauma in a therapeutic setting without being overwhelmed by emotions, but also without being cut off from emotions," Mithoefer wrote in the email. "This can allow them to process trauma in a way they had not been able to previously."
MDMA, which stands for 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, was created by Merck in 1912 and was meant to be used as a blood clotting agent. Some U.S. psychiatrists embraced it in the 1970s because of its purported ability to allow patients to be more communicative and to achieve insights about their own problems, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The FDA has never approved the drug for use outside research studies.
The informal psychiatric use all but stopped in 1985, when the DEA classified it as a Schedule I drug, with no medical use and a high potential for abuse. But since the prohibition, regulators have allowed a few legal labs to continue producing MDMA for research.
Research into MDMA's potential to treat symptoms of PTSD, anxiety and even autism are popping up around the country. A trial at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, for instance, will test MDMA on high-functioning autistic adults. Researchers in Northern California are investigating whether MDMA can reduce anxiety in patients facing death, reports the Los Angeles Times. Researchers are also looking into LSD, a Schedule I hallucinogenic drug, for its effects on treating anxiety and alcoholism.
Despite its potential for therapy, MDMA is not without risks, which can include fatal hyperthermia and brain damage. Advocates for the therapeutic use of MDMA suggest that risk for neurological impairment at the proposed dosing level is low, and that further study is needed.
Macie emphasized that he doesn’t recommend MDMA for recreational abuse. He said he wishes all veterans who struggle with PTSD could have the option to be part of an MDMA research trial.
He also has a new mission: To speak out about his experience in the hopes of advancing change. “Ultimately I'd like to see the VA look into this as a tool for veterans, so people with PTSD who are treatment resistant to other things can have this as an option," Macie told HuffPost.
This article has been updated with additional information about the risk of MDMA use.