MDMA May Be Legal for PTSD Therapy in Five Years

The MDMA molecule overlays a CT scan of a human skull. Some therapists have experimented with using the psychoactive drug to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. Pasieka/Zephyr/Science Photo Library/Getty

Post-traumatic stress disorder is in desperate need of effective medication for treatment. We're talking about that manifestation of physical trauma in the body that's common to people who have experienced war, abuse and other harrowing events. In the U.S., about 8 percent of the population will have PTSD over their lifetime, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

What if we already had a therapeutic medicine available to remedy this trauma, but it wasn't available ... because it's categorized as one of the most restricted drugs in the U.S.?

That medicine could be MDMA. Also known as Ecstasy among users, it's a synthetic, psychoactive drug. If research goes well in the next five years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) could approve it for therapeutic treatment. 

The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) has been exploring such therapy for years. Now the group is planning with the FDA to enter the third and final phase of clinical trials.

MAPS is a nonprofit organization that develops ways for people to benefit from the researched use of drugs like MDMA. To help aid PTSD's debilitating symptoms, the group is looking to combine verbal therapy with medication. Since the patent on MDMA has expired, pharmaceutical companies aren't as interested in its possibilities. So to further their research, MAPS has to raise money (roughly $20 million) to complete the trials. It's not cheap. A gram of medical-grade MDMA can costs up to $170, or $75 per dose.

Let's be clear though. MDMA assists in psychotherapy. Patients wouldn't be popping the pills like painkillers. In fact, it's only administered a few times during treatment. Before MDMA enters the picture, the therapist and patient have a few sessions where they get to know each other without drugs, followed by a few MDMA sessions, during which therapists also monitor the patient's vital signs while discussing the traumatic event.

Experts say the drug lowers fear, which allows the trauma to be discussed openly. A small, early study by MAPS found that 83 percent of the 20 participants no longer displayed signs of PTSD two months after their treatment. Follow-up visits four years later showed the benefits remained.

MAPS isn't alone in this research. Several similar studies have been performed in Canada, Israel, Spain and Switzerland. All of these are designed to heal people who don't respond to traditional PTSD therapy. In March, MAPS announced that phase two of their clinical trials was finished. Phase three will involve giving the treatment to large groups of people to decide whether MDMA can be used safely. It starts in 2017, putting the medication on track for FDA approval in 2021. 

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