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e is for ecstasy

The UK ecstasy guru from the 90s who influenced MDMA research forever

A major new study could make MDMA a government-approved drug by 2021, two decades since the untimely death of activist Nicholas Saunders

Before the Internet, if you wanted to know what was in your pills, there were two options: suck it and see, or get in touch with the man once known as ‘Britain’s ecstasy guru,’ Nicholas Saunders. The author of an alternative guidebook series and founder of various self-sustaining hippie communities, Saunders was a prominent member of the UK’s counterculture scene from the 1970s until a fatal car crash in South Africa in 1998. In the final years of his life, he dedicated himself to providing people with accurate data on drugs, particularly MDMA.

"That was one of Nicholas' main purposes in life - to make information available," says his former partner Anja Saunders. She believes that Saunders was one of the first people providing public drug testing services, having had samples collected from festivals and clubs sent off to labs before publishing the toxicological make-up and identifying features on his website, ecstasy.org. He paid for this with the profits from his 1993 book E is for Ecstasy and its subsequent revisions, a huge collection of academic research, interviews, legal policy and anecdotal testimony on the topic of MDMA that constituted one of the most thorough resources of the time.

To Saunders, MDMA was a substance with great therapeutic and spiritual potential; he credited his own first experience with showing him that he had been depressed for years and “truly believed that ecstasy improved the quality of (his) life”. Two decades after his death, MDMA is a divisive subject in the UK, but its legitimacy as a therapeutic drug in the U.S. is just a couple of years away, thanks to the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), whose founder Rick Doblin helped bring E is for Ecstasy to America. If the final stage of their research goes well, MDMA will be an FDA-approved treatment for PTSD by 2021.

MAPS have spent years fighting bureaucracy and stigma to develop clinical trials for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the results have been overwhelmingly positive. Of the 107 people with chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD that took part in their most recent trials, an astounding 68 per cent no longer fit the diagnostic criteria for PTSD after completing the 12-week therapy course, with almost all participants experiencing an improval of symptoms. For an often lifelong condition that affects up to 8 per cent of the American population, this kind of one-time treatment option could be revolutionary, but it is still being met with some resistance.

“There’s a shift happening, but in order to make it happen we have to get the word out”

“When people see the headlines, they think we're giving people prescription bottles of MDMA to take every day,” MAPS communications director Brad Burge tells Dazed. “That’s the opposite of what is happening.” The therapy participants receive between three and six MDMA capsules over the entirety of the three month program, to be administered in just three of their weekly sessions under the guidance of their therapist. Unlike traditional treatment routes, such as antidepressants or cognitive behavioural therapy, the MDMA-assisted course is undertaken just once, with effects that will hopefully last a lifetime.

The science behind MDMA’s usefulness isn’t entirely clear, but one factor is the release of intimacy-boosting hormones such as oxytocin and prolactin - the same as those produced by breastfeeding parents. Another is that MDMA reduces activity in the amygdala, or ‘reptile brain’, which is generally associated with the ‘fight or flight’ reflex. These effects allow people to bypass the intense fear and distrustful responses that are prevalent symptoms of PTSD and address negative memories in a safe environment with the aid of a specially trained professional. The overall effect, Burges tells me, is essentially “a guided trip”.

MDMA’s therapeutic properties are not a new discovery; as Saunders notes, it was extremely popular among psychotherapists for this purpose until its DEA ban in 1985. It has been favoured by religious people as a spiritual aid, and Saunders’ guerilla research documents its efficacy as an informal healing tool, noting that people who had suffered trauma would frequently have emotional breakthroughs during or following a trip.

Despite its known benefits, MDMA has been of little interest to large pharmaceutical companies because of its reputation and lack of profit potential; its 1912 patent as part of a blood-thinning medication has expired, making it impossible to gain the exclusive ownership rights that companies use to recuperate expensive research costs. Unable to acquire government funding, MAPS have relied on donations to support their work, some of which have come from unlikely places. Eco-conscious soap company Dr. Bronner has donated $5 million, while a successful $4 million matching donation was contributed by the Pineapple Fund, an anonymous bitcoin philanthropy organization. Support may not be mainstream, but it exists.

“When people see the headlines, they think we're giving people prescription bottles of MDMA to take every day. That's the opposite of what's happening”

While similar research into MDMA’s uses is being carried out by Dr. Ben Sessa of Imperial College’s Psychedelic Research Group, it is currently unknown when such treatment could come here - the split from the EU means that the future of drug scheduling for the UK is currently unclear.  Additionally, the UK’s approach to drugs, described as “draconian” and “puritan” by Saunders back in 1993, is not getting any more lax - independent monitoring committee DrugScience recently criticised the government for its failure to develop proper harm reduction strategies.

Politics aside, MAPS’ work represents an enormous step forward in quality of life for people with severe PTSD. Burges hopes that the changing atmosphere and increased education around drugs will allow this kind of life-saving research to continue. “There’s a shift happening, but in order to make it happen we have to get the word out," he says. “Researchers need to be not just willing, but excited to get involved.”