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What We Can't Seem to Remember About MDMA and Why Legalizing Drugs Will Save Your Child's Life

10/07/2013 12:11 pm 12:11:48 | Updated Jan 23, 2014

This article is about every person who has ever ingested a mind-altering substance but didn't want to die from doing so.

Thanks to our failed experiment with alcohol prohibition, we know that it's impossible to keep people away from intoxicants, legal or otherwise. The difference is in how we treat those who favor certain substances over others. If Budweiser were suddenly implicated in a salmonella outbreak, there would be a furious investigation. People would ask why nobody had been monitoring the safety equipment, why no one was sanitizing the bottles. We regulate beer so that millions of people who enjoy it every day don't fall ill because of low quality standards or because someone's been pouring paint thinner into the brew. Regulation also keeps us from getting hit by the stray bullets of gangs fighting over the local Bud Light distribution. But for the many illicit drugs that, unlike alcohol, a substance that kills thousands of people every year, do not have the government's seal of approval, there are no such guarantees.

MDMA (methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine) is a crystalline off-white to brownish substance known to cause feelings of euphoria banned by the U.S. government. This is what Molly, a drug linked to some deaths in the news recently, is intended to be (and can be, depending on the source) but because of large profits to be made, its place on the illegal market, and lack of public drug literacy, Molly is often sold as a mystery bag of off-white powders. There are numerous cheaper chemicals that appear similar but that can be deadly in much lower doses, making buying Molly off the street a dangerous proposition.

Victims of the unregulated market include Jeffrey Russ and Olivia Rotondo, who died from overdoses at a recent festival in New York City. Olivia reportedly told paramedics she ingested six hits of Molly before dying. There is no standard unit of measurement for a single "hit" of the drug, however, and Olivia had no way of knowing if what she took was actually MDMA. The difficult truth is that if the drug she wanted were legal, she and Jeffrey might still be alive. They would have known what they were buying and exactly how much to take while minimizing harm. Their drugs would have been labeled with safety precautions necessary to alleviate common symptoms -- such as taking magnesium to reduce bruxism, sipping on an electrolyte-infused beverage to stay hydrated, and replenishing the brain's serotonin supply with a 5-HTP supplement.

MDMA was originally synthesized by pharmaceutical giant Merck in the early 1900s, but was discarded for their particular goals. It was re-synthesized in the late 1970s by biochemist Alexander Shulgin. He and his psychotherapist friend Leo Zeff, among others, found that the chemical contained powerful therapeutic potential for people who have experienced trauma, marital troubles, depression, and more. Word got out quickly about the drug's success in therapy, and users started enjoying it in nightclubs because of its ability to induce euphoria and a sense of connectedness. Shulgin and Zeff were distributing it for free so there was no demand for an alternative source. But it quickly became too popular for this to be affordable.

Nobody had been significantly harmed by the drug until police got wind of the growing trend. MDMA was declared Schedule I in 1985. This means the government considers it to be extremely harmful, have high abuse potential, and that it has no accepted medical or therapeutic uses. Schedule I also means research approval is almost impossible. Like the scheduling of most other illegal substances, MDMA's classification is not based in much scientific truth.

Now that it was illegal, MDMA went from being carefully produced by a trained chemist making the drug for his friends to being poorly synthesized by the illegal market looking to capitalize on the high demand. It started getting cut with other chemicals to reduce distribution costs, becoming the drug popularly known as Ecstasy. Now that it's produced in the illegal market, it is known to contain anything from meth to cocaine to piperazine, an animal de-wormer. MDMA later fell under immense scrutiny after Ecstasy was blamed for several deaths.

If we were to legalize MDMA and other drugs, they could be regulated like alcohol, tobacco, and in some places, marijuana -- with a system that values responsibility, treatment, and academic research. Until then, local and state governments need to focus on what saves lives instead of what appeases frightened parents. Music festivals and nightclubs should work with organizations like Bunk Police, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, and DanceSafe to set up informational booths and testing kits for those who wish to take substances. Earplugs, condoms, and water are often found at those tables too. It's not condoning drug use; it's condoning responsibility.

Some people need substances because of their addiction, and some use drugs for fun. Others prefer never to take drugs. All of these people deserve to live. The War on Drugs has forsaken anyone who prefers intoxicants unpopular with the American government. It has left behind people like Jeffrey Russ and Olivia Rotondo who just wanted to have a good time and made a mistake -- one that should never cost anyone his or her life.

Major Neill Franklin (Ret.) is executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of more than 100,000 law enforcement officials and supporters opposed to the war on drugs and a 34-year veteran police officer; Mikayla Hellwich is a Horticulture student at the University of Maryland and the outreach coordinator and former president of the university's chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy.