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[Chapter 2][Chapter 4]

E for Ecstasy by Nicholas Saunders
Chapter 3: History of Ecstasy

MDMA was patented as long ago as 1913 by the German company Merck. Rumour has it that the drug was sold as a slimming pill along with comic descriptions of its strange side effects, although it was never marketed and the patent doesn't mention uses. The next time it came to light was in 1953 when the US army tested a number of drugs for military applications - again, folklore says it was tried as a truth drug but there is no evidence for this.(1)

The father of MDMA - or 'stepfather' as he describes himself - is Alexander Shulgin.(2) After obtaining a PhD in biochemistry from the University of California at Berkeley, Shulgin got a job as a research chemist with Dow Chemicals, for whom he invented a profitable insecticide. As a reward, the company gave him a free hand and his own lab. Having had an exciting experience on Mescaline, Shulgin used the opportunity to research psychedelic drugs. An accepted test for psychedelic effects was to observe how fighting fish change their behaviour. But there were problems: fish don't say when they are under the influence and, well, have you ever seen a fish that doesn't look stoned? His answer was to 'suck it and see'.

Eventually his company was embarrassed to find themselves holding the patents of some popular street drugs and he was politely given the push. Shulgin continued testing new compounds on himself and a select group of friends for many years. Thanks to his remarkable personality - combining openness without proselytising about his liberal and controversial views - he has earned the respect of influential people and is able to carry on with his research today, with the full approval of the US government. His approach to psychedelics is similar to that of a botanist: he specialises in the phenethylamines, and delights in recording the subtle differences between each member of that family of drugs. His experiences are described in his autobiography Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved. MDMA is but one of 179 psychoactive drugs which he describes in detail, and, although its effects are less dramatic than many, MDMA is perhaps the one which comes closest to fulfilling his ambition of finding a therapeutic drug. Shulgin has now moved on to writing a book about another family of psychoactive drugs, the tryptamines, due out in 1995.

However, it was only after hearing glowing reports from other experimenters who had also synthesised and tried MDMA that Shulgin took an interest. He describes how in 1977 he gave some to an old friend who was about to retire from his career of psychotherapy.

He phoned me a few days later to tell me he had abandoned his plans for a quiet retirement. I know none of the details of the increasingly complex network which he proceeded to develop over the following decade, but I do know that he travelled across the country introducing MDMA to other therapists and teaching then how to use it in their therapy. They had all began, of course, by taking the drug themselves. He believed (as I do) that no therapist has the right to give a psychoactive drug to another person unless and until he is thoroughly familiar with its effects on his own mind. Many of the psychologists and psychiatrists whom Leo instructed developed small groups or enclaves of professionals who had been similarly taught, and the information and techniques he had introduced spread widely and, in time, internationally.

It is impossible to ever know the true breadth of therapeutic MDMA usage achieved during the remaining years of his life, but at his memorial service, I asked an old friend of his whether she had a guess at the number of people he had introduced to this incredible tool, either directly or indirectly. She was silent for a moment, then said, 'Well, I've thought about that, and I think probably around four thousand, give or take a few.' Those first psychotherapists to use MDMA were keenly aware that they had found a valuable new tool.(3, 4, 135) As one put it, "MDMA is penicillin for the soul, and you don't give up prescribing penicillin, once you've seen what it can do". They were equally aware that if MDMA became a popular street drug, it could follow in the footsteps of LSD and be criminalized by the US government. They agreed to do as much informal research as possible without bringing the drug to public attention, and did pretty well - MDMA only gradually became known as a fun drug and it wasn't until 1984 that the bubble burst.

If MDMA is so wonderful, why hasn't it been marketed by any of the big drug companies? One reason is that the drug's commercial potential is small; another was that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prohibited trials on humans. But perhaps the most significant obstacle to the commercial exploitation of MDMA is that it has already been patented - although the patent ran out years ago, a drug cannot be patented a second time. Before marketing a new drug, a drug company has to show that the safety risks are justified by the drug's benefits as a medicine, and this involves long and expensive trials. The only way of recouping that expense is by obtaining exclusive rights to sell the drug through holding its patent.

Those years 1977 to 1985 are looked back on as the 'golden age' of Ecstasy or Adam(5) as it was then known. In psychotherapy, its use only appealed to a few experimental therapists since it didn't fit in with the usual 50-minute psychotherapy session, but they did include some of the most dynamic people in the field, including some who claimed that a five hour Adam session was as good as 5 months of therapy.(166) There was also a select a group of 'explorers' who used the drug in various ways, but, surprisingly, they never discovered its potential as a dance drug.

By 1984 the drug was still legal and was being used widely among students in the USA under its new name 'Ecstasy'. (Rumour has it that a big-time dealer called it 'Empathy', but, although the name is more appropriate, he found that Ecstasy had more sales appeal.) In Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas, Ecstasy was even on sale in bars where you could pay by credit card, where it replaced cocaine as the drug of choice among yuppies and even spread to people who normally kept well clear of drugs. However, it was this public and unashamed use that resulted in the drug being outlawed.

A deeply-embedded puritan ethic seems to affect the response to drugs in Western societies. To use a drug for pleasure is taboo(3), yet to use a drug to relieve pain is acceptable. In reality there is no sharp distinction: if someone is 'suffering from depression' and a drug makes him feel happy, it is regarded as a medicine and meets with approval. But if that person is regarded as normal and takes a drug that makes him happy, he is indulging in something quite unacceptable. Except, of course, if the drug happens to be nicotine or alcohol.(16)

During 1985 Ecstasy got into the mass media because a small group of people sued the US Drug Enforcement Agency to try to prevent them from outlawing the drug. The controversy provided free advertising which made Ecstasy spread like wildfire throughout the US. It was a case of bad timing - the previous year there had been a widely publicised disaster that made the authorities overreact to any new scare. A batch of 'China White', a so-called designer drug(6) which was sold to heroin addicts as a legal substitute, had contained a poisonous impurity, and, tragically, it caused a form of severe brain damage similar to Parkinson's disease.(7) As a result the US Congress passed a new law allowing the DEA to put an emergency ban on any drug it thought might be a danger to the public. On July 1st 1985 this right was used for the first time to ban MDMA - what is more, MDMA was put in the most restrictive category of all, reserved for damaging and addictive drugs without medical use.(8) The effect of prohibition was to curtail research into the drug without changing the attitudes of recreational users.(9) However, the Agency's haste was at the expense of not following the letter of the law, leaving the ruling to be overturned in subsequent court cases.

The temporary ban only lasted for a year; meanwhile a hearing was set up to decide what permanent measures should be taken against the drug. The case received much publicity and was accompanied by press reports advancing the kind of scare stories now current in Europe, which added to the pressure to make the ban permanent. One widely publicised report referred to evidence that another drug, MDA, caused brain damage in rats and concluded that MDMA could cause brain damage in humans.(10, 11, 12) The media indulged in horror scenarios of 'our kids' brains rotting by the time they were thirty, although there was no evidence that MDMA caused brain damage in rats at the dosage levels used by humans. On the other side were the psychotherapists who gave evidence of the benefits of the drug - but they had failed to prepare their ground by carrying out scientifically acceptable trials, so their evidence was regarded as 'anecdotal'.

The case ended with the judge recommending that MDMA be placed in a less restrictive category, Schedule 3, which would have allowed it to be manufactured, to be used on prescription and to be the subject of research. But the recommendation was ignored by the DEA, which refused to back down and instead placed MDMA permanently in Schedule 1. A group of MDMA supporters made a successful challenge to this decision in the Federal Court of Appeal, but their objections were overturned on 23rd March 1988. The fight is still continuing on the grounds that the law is unconstitutional, that the correct procedure was not followed and that the DEA did not take all the evidence into account.

In most countries including the US, all new drugs are regarded as 'innocent until proved guilty' unless they are substantially similar in structure and effect to prohibited drugs, and this gives rise to the phenomenon known as 'designer drugs' - drugs which have been deliberately synthesised to avoid the law. In Britain, however, whole families of chemicals - including members that have not been invented - are treated as 'guilty until proved innocent' under the law. Psychedelic amphetamines, which includes MDA, MDEA and MDMA have been illegal in Britain since 1977, and, as in the US, MDMA has been placed in the category that attracts highest penalties.(13, 14) All member countries of the United Nations are signatories to the International Convention on Psychotropic Substances (ICPO) and follow recommendations laid down by the World Health Organisation Expert Committee on Drug Dependence. In 1985, under American pressure, the ICPO asked member nations to place the drug in Schedule 1 although the chairman of the WHO Expert Committee disagreed with this decision, stating that "At this time, international control is not warranted." A clause was added encouraging member nations to "facilitate research on this interesting substance".(15)

The criminalisation of MDMA in America has had wide-ranging consequences. The first was to prevent the drug being used by professional therapists, except in Switzerland (see chapter 9). The second w as to reduce the quality of the drug as sold on the street, because demand was now met by clandestine laboratories and the drug was distributed through the criminal network. Although the number of users was dramatically reduced at first, criminalisation did not prevent the drug's popularity spreading worldwide.

Ecstasy arrives in Europe

Ecstasy was favoured by Bhagwan Rajneesh, the Indian guru whose disciples wore orange, and when his followers moved out of their ashram in Oregon they brought the drug to Europe in the mid eighties.(17)

The rave scene started on the hippy holiday island of Ibiza in 1987, where Ecstasy joined LSD and hashish at all-night dance parties. In England 'raves' took the form of both large outdoor and warehouse parties, well described by Paul Staines in Appendix 3.

Warehouses were prepared secretly so as to avoid local people obtaining a court order to prevent the raves happening. Tickets were sold in advance without the address, but with a phone number to ring on the night for instructions regarding a meeting place such as a motorway service station from where a convoy would proceed to the venue. Opposition to raves was fierce since people living up to two miles away could be kept awake all night. By 1990 the British government had passed a law, the Entertainments (Increased Penalties Act)(18), which effectively put an end to these big gatherings.

The result was to push ravers into dance clubs. The Hacienda in Manchester led the trend in 1988 with the now prevalent style: DJs who never spoke, but teased the dancers with their subtle 'scratching' establishing the Manchester sound.(19) From there clubbing on E came to London, the rest of Europe and eventually back to E's native California, as reported in the San Francisco Examiner:

The English ravers hit San Francisco in the winter of 1991. "We were suddenly surrounded by these kids, moving here from England. They were coming here in droves and bringing with them a new sensibility, a new style of clothes."

By this time Ecstasy had reached nearly every corner of society in England and by the winter of 1991-2 demand had outstripped supply, partly due to some massive police seizures.(20, 21) Dealers responded by selling any old tablet as Ecstasy and no doubt made huge profits, but as a result people had disappointing experiences and turned away from Ecstasy. Many turned to LSD instead for the simple reason that the dose cannot be adulterated(13) as it is microscopic (a thousand times smaller than a dose of MDMA) and is normally sold absorbed into a 'blotter', a tiny piece of paper too small to absorb active quantities of any other popular drug.

The English pattern of use contrasts with the American one both in kind and volume, which accounts for there being so many more casualties here. The proportion of young people taking Ecstasy is many times higher in Britain(22, 23), and here it is nearly always used as a dance drug. Americans generally use Ecstasy at home, although English-style raves are on the increase.

Although the therapeutic use of MDMA has been outlawed in the US for the past seven years, steps are being taken there towards MDMA becoming a prescription drug. To comply with prerequisites for the licensing of new drugs, a non-profit organisation called The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) opened a Drug Master File for MDMA in 1986, thus permitting research into the drug to be conducted. Recently, research into the effects of MDMA in human volunteers has been approved by the FDA itself, and trials began in 1993.(24) I have faith in common sense prevailing over prejudice in the long run; unless new evidence emerges that MDMA is toxic or another drug appears that is even better, I believe that one day MDMA will be an acceptable medicine.

[Chapter 2][Chapter 4]