What is MDMA?

Quick Answer
MDMA, or ecstasy, is a stimulant that is related to amphetamine and mescaline. It is considered a mind-altering drug that has properties similar to both amphetamines and hallucinogens.
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History of Use

MDMA was first synthesized in Germany in 1912 for Merck Pharmaceuticals, which patented the substance in 1914. MDMA originally was intended to be an anticoagulant but was ineffective for that purpose. During World War I, however, the drug was taken as an appetite suppressant.

In the 1970s, attempts were made to use MDMA to facilitate psychotherapy. It was then that the drug was found to have hallucinogenic properties, which in 1985 led to its being declared an illegal substance. MDMA was classified as a schedule I controlled substance. Class I drugs are those that have a high potential for abuse and have no recognized medical value.

Because MDMA increases energy, endurance, and arousal, it became widely used in underground dance clubs in England in the 1980s because it allowed people to stay up and dance all night. These all-night events came to be called raves, and the drug itself became known as a club drug, party drug, or recreational drug. Its use in this manner spread to the United States around 1990. MDMA has remained popular in the club scene because it is both a hallucinogen and a psychoactive stimulant.

Effects and Potential Risks

MDMA is derived from methamphetamine and differs from it chemically in only one way that makes it resemble the hallucinogen mescaline. As such, it has the characteristics of both a stimulant and a hallucinogen. Its action is explained mainly by its effects on the serotonin pathways in the body, since it affects serotonin reuptake.

Most of the short-term effects of ecstasy are attributable to the psychological changes from increased serotonin in the brain. These effects include feelings of pleasure, mood elevation, and heightened perception. Negative short-term effects include difficulty thinking clearly, agitation, and physical symptoms such as sweating, dry mouth, tachycardia (rapid heartbeat), fatigue, muscle spasms (especially jaw-clenching), and increased temperature.

Some ecstasy users engage in behavior known as “stacking,” or taking multiple doses of ecstasy in one night. This may occur if the person wishes the positive effects of the drug to continue as they begin to wear off. Stacking can result in serious or even fatal physical problems. High blood pressure, extreme elevation of temperature, or cardiac arrhythmias may occur, sometimes resulting in death.

MDMA use often leads to aftereffects too, including depression, restlessness, and difficulty sleeping. Evidence shows that with long-term MDMA use, serotonin levels remain low in the brain, thus affecting brain function over time.

At the same time, as of 2014, scientists had been working with the pure form of MDMA in clinical trials approved by the Food and Drug Administration in the hopes of finding a way to use the drug as part of a psychotherapy treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The studies aimed to determine whether MDMA's potential medical benefits could outweigh negative health effects and often involved war veterans suffering from PTSD. In 2015, the Drug Enforcement Administration had approved the plan from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychadelic Studies to conduct trials regarding the use of MDMA in treating anxiety in the terminally ill.


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