Ecstasy (Part I): Understanding “The Love Drug”
By Dr. Allan Conkey, professor of criminal justice at American Military University
This is the first in a two-part series on the subject of the illegal drug known as Ecstasy (the most common name for MDMA, which is also referred to as Hug, Molly, X-TC, The Love Drug, and others).
The next article in the series will focus on Ecstasy’s potential in combating post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and how the current national debate on recreational marijuana use may have led some users to minimize the dangers associated with Ecstasy use.
This first article is aimed at helping readers gain a basic understanding of the facts surrounding this drug. With that goal in mind, this article includes a short presentation of the drug’s history, identifying predominately who is using it, some of its common side effects, and concluding with why the variables surrounding the drug Ecstasy clearly make it worthy of discussion today.
History of Ecstasy
Like many current illegal drugs, Ecstasy or 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), didn’t start out on the world (or U.S.) stage as a banned substance. Ecstasy was developed by the E. Merck pharmaceutical company in the early 1900s; the original uses ranged from stopping bleeding to combatting obesity (Walters, Foy, & Castro, 2002).
However, it was based on Ecstasy’s growing visibility for abuse in the 70s and early 80s that led to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agencies’ decision to register Ecstasy as a Class 1 illegal substance in 1985. This placed Ecstasy in the same category as other drugs deemed to have no valid medical use while simultaneously having a high propensity for abuse (such as LSD and, ironically, marijuana—the latter being a connection to be discussed further in the third installment of this series).
Yet today, and despite being made illegal almost 20 years ago, Ecstasy continues to be widely used in the U.S. More so, this is despite arguably tough punishments, such as that in Colorado where being caught with just one pill of Ecstasy is considered a felony, and which carries with it a possible penalty of up to 12 years in prison for adult offenders (ironically this is the same state that in 2013 legalized recreational marijuana).
Who is Using the Drug?
Before being made illegal in the U.S. and a large number of nations around the world (e.g., Great Britain and Australia to name but two), early users of Ecstasy were commonly prescribed the drug. In fact, right up until Ecstasy was made illegal, some in the mental health arena were prescribing it to assist in treating patients suffering from a range of issues; such as overcoming rape to problems with acceptance (Walters, Foy, & Castro, 2002).
With regard to more modern times, and while all age brackets are represented, today those illegally using Ecstasy are predominately under 30 years of age, and who commonly take part in clubbing and raves. Basic effects of Ecstasy include lack of appetite, which in turn assists with preventing weight gain, and an increased ability to stay awake for long periods of time. Both these effects make Ecstasy an attractive drug to a growing number of young people, particularly college students, who arguably desire such outcomes. However, not all side effects associated with Ecstasy would fall into the category of desirable.
The Side Effects of Ecstasy
It is important to state up front that present research on Ecstasy generally highlights a lack of physical dependency to the drug (a positive when compared with other psychedelic drugs such as LSD). However, the link between a psychological/needs based addiction and Ecstasy is far less clear. In short, while current data tends to agree that Ecstasy is not physically addicting, there is evidence that users so desire the original feeling produced (and in turn continue to try and achieve the same feeling/euphoria over and over again) that a psychological dependency can exist. That potential reality is supported in a number of studies, where Ecstasy users were shown to consistently try to take more and more of the drug in order to achieve the same original experience (Verheyden, Henry, & Curran, 2003).
That aside, two very common and consistent Ecstasy-related side effects include enhancing a user’s level of trust and empathy, while also making the user more talkative and outgoing (Hysek, et al., 2012); such side effects frequently last 3 to 6 hours after the drug is taken.
In some circumstances, one could look at those two side effects as a positive (and while they can be very dubious in the right setting, for example, how Ecstasy is used to lower natural inhibitions in a potential date rape victim), other side effects by their very nature are outwardly dangerous to users. Among these is the very real potential for the onset of dehydration and hyperthermia, as well as an increased potential for both heart and/or kidney failure (SAMSA, 2013).
Similarly, while Ecstasy is known for producing heightened user sensitivities (e.g., to light, sound, and touch, the latter of which is why some refer to Ecstasy as The Love Drug), research has also shown a positive correlation between Ecstasy use and depression (e.g., Fisk, Murphy, Montgomery, & Hadjiefthyvoulou, 2011; Parrott, et al., 2002; Verheyden, Henry, & Curran, 2003).
More so, research has shown Ecstasy use is positively correlated with an individual’s inability to correctly read negative facial expressions and other negative social stimulus (Hysek, Domes, & Liechti, 2012). In short, those impaired by Ecstasy have been shown to be at a greater (and statistically significant) risk of failing to correctly read the warning signs associated with a variety of settings. This could range from, failing to recognize that someone is about to lose their temper and attack them, to various other potential threats to users.
In short, Ecstasy use has been shown to decrease a user’s ability to avoid dangerous situations. Making it all the more ironic that one of the reasons Ecstasy is worth discussing is not just the growing problem it represents, or the potential dangers inferred by its use (both of which on their own would make Ecstasy worthy of further discussion), but also in part because it can potentially be used to treat a very serious disorder…PTSD.
Ecstasy: Worthy of Focus? Absolutely
In an era where so much dialogue and debate has been focused on enforcing (or not) current drug laws, the topic of Ecstasy use clearly has a place in current illegal drug discussions. This is especially true when data shows a 128% increase from just 2005 to 2011 in ecstasy-related emergency room visits for those 20 years of age and under (SAMSA, 2013).
More so, and as implied above, and as will be discussed further in the second installment of this series, the drug Ecstasy may have a valid place in combating the anxiety disorder known as PTSD.
This is a disorder with implications spanning far more than just law enforcement and the military communities, but clearly society as a whole. An opinion supported in part based on the sheer numbers of those afflicted with PTSD—both within and outside of those two venues. Numbers that collectively are estimated by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (2014) to consist of over 5 million adults (at any given time) in just the U.S.
For the next part in the series, please read: Ecstasy (Part II): Illegal Drug…PTSD Miracle Cure…or Both?
About the Author: Dr. Allan Conkey is a retired officer and a decorated veteran of both the first and second Gulf Wars. Dr. Conkey’s career includes work as a criminal investigator, confinement officer, senior U.S. customs officer in Japan, and exchange officer with the Japanese National Police Forensics Laboratory in Northern Japan. As Commander of the Air Force’s Elite Guard for two years, he commanded plain-clothed security details in support of dozens of world leaders and heads of state to include President Bush and Afghanistan President Hamid Kharzai. He is a three time Military Chief of Police and member of the National Association of Chiefs of Police. In all, Dr. Conkey has more than 25 years of active service in the law enforcement and security realm. Today, a published author and faculty member for American Public University System, Dr. Conkey teaches within the criminal justice department and holds the academic rank of full professor.
Fisk, J. E., Murphy, P.N., Montgomery, C., and Hadjiefthyvoulou, F. (2011). Modelling the adverse effects associated with ecstasy use. Addiction, 106(4), 798-805. doi:10.1111/j.1360-0443.2010.03272.x
Hysek, C., Domes, G., and Liechti, M, (2012). MDMA enhances ‘mind reading’ of positive emotions and impairs ‘mind reading’ of negative emotions. Psychopharmacology, 222(2), 293-302. doi: 10.1007/s00213-012-2645-9
Hysek, C. M., Simmler, L.D., Nicola, V.G., Vischer, N., Donzelli, M., Krahenbuhl, S., Grouzmann, E., Huwyler, J., Hoener, M.C., and Liechti, M.E. (2012). Duloxetine inhibits effects of MDMA (‘‘Ecstasy’’) in vitro and in humans in a randomized placebo-controlled laboratory study. PLoS ONE, 7(5), 1-15. doi 10.1371/journal.pone.0036476
Parrott, A. C., Buchanan, T., Scholey, A. B., Heffernan, T., Ling, J., and Rodgers, J. (2002). Ecstasy/MDMA attributed problems reported by novice, moderate and heavy recreational users. Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical & Experimental, 17(6), 309-312. doi: 10.1002/hup.415
SAMSA (2013). Ecstasy-related emergency department visits by young people increased between 2005 and 2011; Alcohol remains a concern. The Dawn Report. Retrieved from www.samsa.gov.
Verheyden S. L., Henry J.A., and Curran H.V. (2003). Acute, sub-acute and long-term subjective consequences of ‘Ecstasy’ (MDMA) consumption in 430 regular users. Human Psychopharmacology, 18 (7): 507–17. doi:10.1002/hup.529
Walters, S. T., Foy, B. D., and Castro, R. J. (2002). The agony of Ecstasy: Responding to growing MDMA use among college students. Journal of American College Health, 51(3), 139-141.