MDMA was first synthesized in 1910s Germany as a research compound. It eventually gained popularity as a recreational substance in clubbing and rave scenes and more recently as a therapy tool.
Things to Know
- Chemist Sasha Shulgin is known as the godfather of MDMA for rediscovering it in the 1970s
- MDMA was used in therapy, especially for couples, before it became outlawed
- MDMA picked up popularity in the clubbing and rave scenes
- The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) was founded in 1986 and has led efforts in researching MDMA for therapeutic purposes, with FDA approval
- In 2017, the FDA granted MDMA breakthrough therapy status
Synthesis and Rediscovery
MDMA was first synthesized in 1912 by the German pharmaceutical company Merck as part of a larger effort to develop medications that could control bleeding. However, it was not pursued further at that time. Then in the 1970s, MDMA was rediscovered by chemist Alexander (Sasha) Shulgin, who synthesized it and conducted self-experiments. He found it to have unique psychoactive effects. Sasha Shulgin and his wife, the therapist Ann Shulgin, introduced MDMA to psychologists and therapists who began using it as a therapeutic tool.
From the late 1970s to the early 1980s, MDMA gained popularity among therapists who believed it had the potential to treat psychological conditions. It was used in therapeutic settings to facilitate communication, enhance empathy, and treat issues such as PTSD, anxiety, and relationship conflicts.
In the 1980s, MDMA began to spread outside therapeutic circles and gained popularity as a recreational substance. It became associated with the nightclub and rave scenes due to its euphoric and empathogenic effects. MDMA is also often known by the slang terms “Molly” or “Ecstacy.”
As recreational use increased, concerns arose about the drug’s potential health risks and abuse. In 1985, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classified MDMA as a Schedule I controlled substance, making it illegal to possess, manufacture, or distribute. Many other countries also then classified MDMA as an illegal drug.
Around the same time that MDMA became prohibited, MAPS founder Rick Doblin began leading efforts to study MDMA-assisted therapy as a potential treatment for PTSD. MAPS, along with other researchers and collaborators, worked to overcome regulatory barriers and gain approval for conducting clinical trials in MDMA-assisted therapy. MAPS-sponsored Phase 2 clinical trials, conducted in the early 2000s, showed promising results using MDMA-assisted therapy for individuals with treatment-resistant PTSD, especially combat veterans. These positive outcomes led to Phase 3 clinical trials, which are the final stage before potential FDA approval.
Breakthrough Therapy Designation
In 2017, the FDA granted MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD breakthrough therapy status, recognizing its potential to address a significant unmet medical need. This designation aims to expedite the development and review process of potential treatments.