If you discovered it in your kid’s room there’d be hell to pay. If it appeared in a random urinalysis, it could end your career. And if you told your friends you were considering taking it, they might think you’ve suffered a mid-life crisis.
But a South Carolina psychiatrist and a Harvard-educated researcher are looking for veterans who’ve been through hell and are willing to explore a fresh way of getting past the trauma using a drug long associated with the late-night party crowd.
Ecstasy, clinically known as MDMA and outlawed recreationally for decades, is making a gradual comeback in the medical community as therapists rediscover its therapeutic value – especially in dealing with post traumatic stress disorder.
“I heard about it and I decided to give it a try,” said a former Army Ranger who was one of two veterans who participated in a recent study on the effects of Ecstasy for treating PTSD. “It’s an extremely positive thing. I feel so lucky that I got to take part in the project.
“It’s basically like years of therapy in two or three hours. You can’t understand it until you’ve experienced it.”
Michael Mithoefer, a former emergency room physician turned psychiatrist, and Rick Doblin, who founded an organization to study the role of psychedelic drugs in society, are lobbying the Department of Veterans Affairs to allow veterans suffering from PTSD to take part in their unconventional research.
Mithoefer works with his wife, Ann, out of their Mount Pleasant, S.C., office helping victims of serious trauma overcome their anguish.
With support from Doblin, the couple successfully petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to allow them to test the effects of the drug on people who suffered from PTSD. They recently completed their first round of testing, with promising results.
“This is very exciting for us and I am very hopeful that other people can replicate the results,” Mithoefer said.
“I have to stress that this is a lot different than getting a prescription for MDMA. We don’t see it ever working like that,” Mithoefer added. “You’ll have to take it in specialized clinics. No one will get to take it home.”
In the latest round of testing, 21 patients took the drug a handful of times throughout an extended period of psychiatric treatment. It’s administered under a strict set of conditions and always under close supervision by medical professionals.
Mithoefer and Doblin are not fly-by-night crackpots promising an overnight cure of a serious condition with a magic pill.
“It’s been approved by the FDA and Harvard. We have evidence of its safety and evidence of its efficacy,” Doblin said. “We’ve shown that we can help Soldiers deal with their trauma.”
Medical, military uses
MDMA has an interesting history. Developed by the pharmaceutical firm Merck in 1912, it was widely used in private psychiatric settings in the 1950s and ‘60s. The Army experimented with it briefly in its search for mind control drugs, Doblin said.
It induces feelings of extended euphoria -- hence the name ecstasy -- as well as heightened awareness and a greater connection to emotions.
But it was embraced by the counter-culture of the late 1960s, and by the 1980s it was competing with cocaine as the most popular party drug. In 1985, the Drug Enforcement Administration had it classified as a “Schedule I” drug, alongside LSD and heroine.
“It was really a shame because we were only beginning to understand its potential for medical treatment” when it was criminalized, Doblin said. “With drugs like this, there is a lot of misconception. … They are like the surgeon’s knife: If they are used properly, they can heal. If they are used poorly, they can kill.”
The research project began with people suffering from PTSD who were victims of crime – rape and childhood sexual abuse were the most common – and only recently expanded to veterans.
The former Army Ranger, who spoke to Military.com on the condition of anonymity because he continues to work for private military contractors, and a former Marine officer were the first veterans to participate.
Both served in Iraq and suffered moderately severe PTSD – re-experiencing the initial trauma, sleeplessness, flashbacks and nightmares – before participating in the program.
“I didn’t want to be part of this 'Prozac nation.' I know some of those people and they don’t feel up or down or anything all. They aren’t really living,” the former Ranger said.
“I think it’s especially helpful for Soldiers, or someone who comes from a hard or tough background, because this is just the opposite,” the Ranger said. “It’s a soft, compassionate loving drug. You lie down, listen to some relaxing music and can really connect with your emotions.”
Both Doblin and Mithoefer said they were rebuffed by VA officials when they requested help in recruiting patients for the study. A VA spokeswoman told Military.com the department has no record of requests to treat PTSD patients with MDMA.
But the former Ranger said he’s confident the VA will explore it as an option once word of the treatment’s success spreads.
“For me, I moved past those troubles and on to other things, and I couldn’t have done it without [Mithoefer’s] help,” he said. “If it helps Soldiers like me recover, they’re going to have to look at it seriously.”
by Bryan Mitchell
March 04, 2009
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