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History of Drugs: MDMA

MDMA has been around for 100 years. It was previously used as a counseling tool by therapists in the ’70s, but was made illegal in 1985.

MDMA is an empathogenic drug – a class all its own – that can induce euphoria as well as feelings of empathy. It has also been described as an amphetamine and a hallucinogen.

Studies in the fields of psychology and cognitive therapy have suggested that MDMA has therapeutic benefits and that it can aid therapy sessions. Currently, clinical trials are now testing the therapeutic possibilities of MDMA in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety associated with terminal cancer and addiction.


1912: MDMA was first synthesized in 1912 by a chemist with Merck Corporation. At the time, Merck was interested in developing substances to stop abnormal bleeding. 

1927: Merck researchers perform animal experiments and notice that the substance has some similarities to adrenaline.

1953-1954: The US Army conducts animal experiments with MDMA and other similar drugs. The findings weren’t declassified until 1969. Some suggest that they were looking for non-lethal chemical weapons and interrogation tools.

1965: A chemist by the name of Alexander Shulgin creates MDMA while working at Dow Chemical, but does not try the substance, himself. His focus is on psychoactive drugs.

1967: A student at the University of California at San Francisco describes his experience with taking MDMA to Shulgin. Eventually, Shulgin decides to try the new drug himself.

1972: MDMA is being seen by police in Chicago. Use is spreading slowly but, MDMA remains a rare drug.

1977: Therapists begin using MDMA as a tool in their counseling sessions with patients. The ability of MDMA to help patients overcome emotional barriers was so striking that one psychiatrist dubbed it “penicillin for the soul.”

1984: The growing networks of therapists, chemists and users, which, until this time, had remained largely underground, becomes impossible to ignore when Michael Clegg, who, as a seminary student in the late ’70s, he began giving it to friends, then selling it to cover his expenses, and then selling it for profit. It was Cleg who coined the name “Ecstasy” for MDMA. Now a full-on Catholic priest, Clegg

begins openly selling MDMA in Texas; even advertising it with a 1-800 number and offering shipping.

Seeing this as a ‘crisis,’ – people getting high without risk of getting arrested (MDMA was not a recognized illicit drug at this point), the Drug Enforcement Agency Emergency Scheduled MDMA as a Schedule I drug for a year while it was decided how it should be permanently scheduled.

1985: Hearings regarding the scheduling of MDMA begin.

1986: Judge Young handed down his decision that, based on the laws, science, and use surrounding MDMA, it was safe when used under medical supervision, did not have a high potential for addiction, and had legitimate medical use. Therefore, MDMA should not be scheduled any higher than Schedule III, which would have allowed for therapeutic use yet still made sale without a prescription illegal.

The DEA however rejected this non-binding ruling and declared MDMA to permanently be a Schedule I drug.

1988: On January 27, the courts agreed with the original decision and ordered the DEA to reassess its Scheduling decision. MDMA is removed from Schedule I, and therefore becoming legal once again, albeit only briefly.

The DEA agreed to reevaluate their decision and decided that they came to the same conclusion as before – permanently declaring MDMA Schedule I.

March 2001: Use of MDMA continues to increase dramatically; government increases penalties, making the distribution of MDMA ten times more severely punished than heroin. 

November 2, 2001: The US Food and Drug Administration gives approval for human testing of MDMA for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder to the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies MAPS).

September 5, 2003:  The infamous MDMA researcher George Ricaurte, who opposed the legalization of MDMA confesses: His claim that his study proved that a “common recreational dose” of MDMA could cause extensive brain damage and Parkinson’s-like symptoms never actually happened.

September 23, 2003: After this confession was brought to light, MAPS was finally granted approval by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) – whose oversight is needed in order to conduct human research.

April 6, 2004: MAPS administers the first dose of MDMA in its post-traumatic stress disorder study.

If you or someone you love is struggling with MDMA abuse, MDMA addiction, or another substance abuse or addiction, please call toll-free 1-800-951-6135.




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