The Invention of MDMA (Ecstasy)

History, Side Effects, and Chemical Properties

Pressed pills or "pressies" of MDMA

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MDMA’s full chemical name is “3,4 methylene-dioxy-N-methylamphetamine” or “methylenedioxymethamphetamine.” The 3,4 indicates the way in which the components of the molecule are joined together. It’s possible to produce an isomer which has all the same components but is joined differently. 

Although MDMA is derived from organic material, it does not occur in nature. It must be created in a complex laboratory process. Various popular street names for MDMA include Ecstasy, E, Adam, X, and Empathy.

How MDMA Works 

MDMA is a mood and mind-altering drug. Like Prozac, it works by affecting the level of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter which is naturally present and can alter emotions. Chemically, the drug is similar to amphetamine, but psychologically, it's what's known as an empathogen-entactogen. An empathogen improve's one's ability to communicate with and feel empathy towards others. An entactogen makes an individual feel good about himself and the world.

The MDMA Patent 

MDMA was patented in 1913 by the German chemical company Merck. It was intended to be sold as a diet pill, although the patent doesn’t mention any specific use. The company decided against marketing the drug. The U.S. Army experimented with MDMA in 1953, possibly as a truth serum, but the government has not revealed its reasons.

Modern Research 

Alexander Shulgin is the man behind modern research of MDMA. After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley with a Ph.D. in biochemistry, Shulgin landed a job as a research chemist with Dow Chemicals. Among his many achievements, there was the development of a profitable insecticide and several controversial patents for what would ultimately become popular street drugs. Dow was happy with the insecticide, but Shulgin's other projects forced a parting of the way between the biochemist and the chemical company. Alexander Shulgin is the first reported human to use MDMA.

Shulgin continued his legal research into new compounds after leaving Dow, specializing in the phenethylamines family of drugs. MDMA is but one of 179 psychoactive drugs which he has described in detail, but it is the one which he felt came closest to fulfilling his ambition of finding the perfect therapeutic drug.

Because MDMA was patented in 1913, it holds no profit potential for drug companies. A drug cannot be patented twice, and a company must show that a drug’s potential side effects are justified by its benefits before marketing it. This involves long and expensive trials. The only way of recouping that expense is by obtaining exclusive rights to sell the drug by holding its patent. Only a few experimental therapists researched and tested MDMA for use during psychotherapy sessions between 1977 and 1985.

Media Attention and Lawsuits 

MDMA or Ecstasy received massive media attention in 1985 when a group of people sued the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to try to prevent the DEA from effectively outlawing the drug by placing it on Schedule 1. Congress had passed a new law allowing the DEA to put an emergency ban on any drug that might be dangerous to the public, and this right was used for the first time to ban MDMA on July 1, 1985. 

A hearing was held to decide what permanent measures should be taken against the drug. One side argued that MDMA caused brain damage in rats. The other side claimed this might not be true for humans and that there was proof of the beneficial use of MDMA as a drug treatment in psychotherapy. After weighing the evidence, the presiding judge recommended that MDMA be placed on Schedule 3, which would have allowed it to be manufactured, used by prescription, and subject to further research. However, the DEA decided to place MDMA permanently on Schedule 1 regardless. 

Trial research into the effects of MDMA on human volunteers resumed in 1993 with the approval of the Food and Drug Administration. It is the first psychoactive drug to be approved for human testing by the FDA.

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Bellis, Mary. "The Invention of MDMA (Ecstasy)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 27). The Invention of MDMA (Ecstasy). Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "The Invention of MDMA (Ecstasy)." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 11, 2021).