Why do people take ecstasy, Molly, MDMA?

People take ecstasy mainly to connect with others. How does it work in the brain and when do patterns of use start historically? A brief review here.

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By Surya Solanki

Ecstasy brings about a euphoric high that lasts for 3-8 hours, making it a popular party drug. In this article, we take a brief look at the drug’s history, its effects on the brain and body and its popular use in today’s world. Then, we invite your comments, feedback, or opinions at the end.

What is MDMA?

MDMA is the nickname for the main ingredient found in ecstasy, 3.4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine, an illicit drug that can act both as a stimulant and psychedelic, producing an energizing effect, as well as distortions in time and perception and enhanced enjoyment from tactile experiences.  It is usually taken in the form of tablets or capsules, containing 60-120 milligrams of the drug.

The History of MDMA

The most commonly repeated statement in the medical literature is that MDMA was synthesized by German pharmaceutical company Merck in 1912 in order to develop an appetite suppressor. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, although MDMA was synthesized at Merck in 1912, it “was only an unimportant precursor in a new synthesis for haemostatic substances”. It further adds that, the “new pathway was patented in order to evade an existing patent by a local competitor.”

Nonetheless, MDMA use gained popularity in the 1970s when Dr. Alexander Shuglin “rediscovered the MDMA compound” and the drug was promoted as a psychotherapeutic tool. Psychiatrists felt that MDMA enabled users to get an insight into their problems, many famously describing it as a “penicillin for the soul”. This was despite the fact that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) did not approve its use in clinical trials until 2000 (to treat post-dramatic stress disorder).

In the 1980s, MDMA hit the streets under the street names of “ecstasy” and “empathy”. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), however, banned the drug in 1985, and it was added to the Schedule 1 list of controlled substances. It was said to have “no medical use and a high potential for abuse.” However, we are just beginning to understand psychological dependence on drugs…and it begins when you take drugs like ecstasy to get high.

Ecstasy and Molly: What’s in it?

Ecstasy is a narcotic drug formed after chemically altering MDMA with caffeine or another amphetamine. It comes in the form of pressed pills.  Molly is the powder/crystalline form of MDMA. However, owing to the increased demand of Molly, dealers often mix Molly with other often unknown substances. In fact, the DEA says that only 13% of the Molly seized in New York state the last four years actually contained any MDMA, and even then it often was mixed with other drugs. The drugs frequently found in Molly are Methylone, MDPV, 4-MEC, 4-MMC, Pentedrone and MePP. These lab-created chemicals mimic the effects of MDMA, thus fooling users.

The impact of MDMA on the Brain and Body

MDMA mainly acts upon the serotonin neurotransmitters in the brain. Serotonin controls our appetite, sleep, memory, learning and mood. MDMA releases large amount of serotonin, causing feeling of happiness and empathy. Users become socially interactive and experience feelings of mental stimulation. Enhanced sensory perception is considered a hallmark of the MDMA high.

The enzyme, “monoamine oxidase” (MAO), breaks down serotonin, but MDMA continues to flood the brain with more serotonin release. In about four hours, MDMA uses most of the serotonin in the user’s brain. Since MAO keeps breaking down this serotonin, the user loses large amounts of serotonin. People may take more MDMA in such cases, but it won’t help. MDMA only releases the serotonin already present in the brain. It does not “create” more serotonin. MOA has destroyed them and serotonin takes time to replenish naturally. This low level of serotonin causes the painful “downer”. Users may become very depressed, irritable and annoyed. Long term effects of ecstasy on the brain include changes in personality, behavior, and psychological health.

MDMA effects on the body causes several physical changes. It increases the user’s body temperature, which can lead to dehydration. The user may combat this by drinking water. However, some users have suffered from water intoxication after drinking too much water. MDMA also increases the release of the fight-or-flight neurotransmitter norepinephrine. As a result, our body prepares for action and hence, the body temperature, blood pressure and heart beat increase. MDMA causes an influx in the production of dopamine as well- the brain’s pleasure chemical.

Popular Use and Dangers

MDMA use is common at parties and music festivals. It is billed as a pure, fun loving drug. But MDMA use has many dangers.

Pure MDMA is rarely found on the streets. This means, the drug is often mixed with unknown chemicals with possible hazardous consequences on the human body. Moreover, lack of awareness about the drug has led to many fatal consequences. MDMA causes dehydration and continual dancing at parties or music events only makes it worse for the users. If they don’t keep themselves hydrated, there are risks of suffering from a heatstroke. According to the DEA, when Ecstasy (MDMA) related deaths occur, the most common mechanism of death is complications of severe overheating (heatstroke). Long-term use of MDMA can have taxing psychological and physiological consequences as the drug heavily depletes the body chemicals.

Changing times: Using ecstasy to connect

Rick Doblin, the founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, says that current MDMA use is a sign of changing times.

“As we move more and more electronic, people are extremely hungry for the opposite: human interaction on a deeper level where you’re not rushing around”-Doblin has said. “The rise of Molly is in tune with how people are feeling emotionally.”

As written in the Daily Mail, “Just as 1960s hippies used LSD to ‘find themselves’ spiritually, MDMA helps to promotes feelings of bonding and human connection in a highly alienating world.”

Reference Sources: CNN
The Daily Mail
New York Times
Dance Safe
US Drug Enforcement Administration
National Center for Biotechnology Information
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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