Ecstasy is the popular name for the illicit, recreational drug 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine or MDMA. It is known by many other terms including “Molly,” “E,” and “X.”
HISTORY OF ECSTASY
Anton Kollisch, a chemist at the pharmaceutical company Merck, first discovered MDMA in Germany in 1912. Researchers were not interested in the drug itself, but instead used it to synthesize methylhydrastinine, a potential treatment for uterine bleeding.
The first major tests of MDMA for toxicity in animals were conducted at the University of Michigan in the 1950s for the US Army. In the mid 1970s, this compound came to the attention of a former chemist for the Dow chemical company named Alexander Shulgin, known as the “godfather of ecstasy,” while he was researching a related psychoactive compound, MDA.
Shulgin and David Nichols from Perdue University published the first report on the subjective effects of MDMA in humans in 1978 and compared the drug to marijuana or magic mushrooms without hallucinations.
Their description of ecstasy’s disinhibiting effects soon caught the interest of psychotherapists who viewed the drug as a potential tool to overcome patients’ fears and increase their insight into their own emotions; however, MDMA was never approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or subjected to clinical trials.
Soon after its introduction into psychotherapy, some people soon began using MDMA for recreational purposes. Because it has a unique set of effects characteristic of both stimulant and hallucinogenic drugs, the name “ecstasy” was coined as a pithy description of the drug’s effect on users.
MDMA’s ability to produce the following effects is responsible for its popularity among users:
- Feelings of euphoria.
- Increased energy.
- Mild hallucinations.
Ecstasy is a so-called “party drug” – like ketamine and GHB – and is especially associated with the nightclub and rave scenes. However, it also has many dangerous effects, especially when combined with other substances. Learn more about the Serious Effects of Ecstasy Use.
WHO’S ABUSING IT?
Although MDMA was initially associated with white teenagers and young adults involved in the rave scene, the drug’s popularity has grown significantly beyond this demographic group since the 1980s.
The results of a survey of 268 users from Australia, the US, and the United Kingdom indicate that ecstasy abuse is not specific to one gender, education level, or employment status; however, young adults still have the highest rates of use.
Consider the following statistics on abuse:
- In 2013, over 17 million Americans reported having ever used ecstasy according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH).
- The 2013 NSDUH also showed that the rate of MDMA use is highest among 18-25 year olds, with 12.8% reporting having ever tried it.
Although teen use of MDMA has decreased in the last decade, rates of use in the overall population have not changed much in recent years according to several different measures.
The numbers of people using ecstasy in the past month, using it in the past year, and the percentage of workers testing positive for the drug all show fairly stable levels from year to year.
General interest in the topic of MDMA, as determined by the number of Internet searches including the term “ecstasy,” has steadily declined over the past 10 years both globally and in the US.
Steady rates of MDMA use over this time suggest that the decrease in searches on this topic may reflect greater acceptance or knowledge of the drug among the general public rather than any reduced enthusiasm among users.
Internet searches for “ecstasy” were also fairly evenly distributed across the country without any regional disparities, except for an unusually high concentration of searches in California relative to other states.
THE ECSTASY MARKET
MDMA is produced by clandestine laboratories throughout the world. The majority of ecstasy available in the US today is produced in Canada and the Netherlands, although the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has also identified a small number of production labs in the US.
THE COST OF ECSTASY
The cost of the drug varies considerably across the globe, and prices are generally higher in North America than Europe. A single tablet of MDMA in the US typically contains 50-150 mg of drug and may cost as much as $50, though prices ranging from $10 to $25 are more common.
IS IT ILLEGAL?
The DEA first announced it was investigating MDMA to determine whether it should be banned in 1982, and officially proposed scheduling it as a controlled substance on July 27, 1984. This proposal spurred a dramatic increase in the manufacture and distribution of ecstasy in the US that, in turn, led the DEA to issue an emergency Schedule I classification for MDMA in May 1985. This classification was made permanent in 1988 and remains in force today.
Schedule I controlled substances are defined as those with:
- A high potential for abuse.
- A lack of accepted safety even under medical supervision.
- No currently accepted medical use.
Some psychotherapists and psychiatrists initially objected to the DEA’s classification of MDMA, citing anecdotal use in their own practices. The classification has remained, however, since no clinical studies have ever been conducted to establish the safety and efficacy of ecstasy in the psychotherapy setting.
LEGAL PENALTIES OF USING ECSTASY
As a Schedule I controlled substance, stiff federal penalties apply to anyone caught:
- Manufacturing ecstasy.
- Distributing the drug.
- Using the drug.
Possession of MDMA is considered a felony and can result in any combination of:
- A fine.
- A prison sentence.
Federal sentences for trafficking ecstasy, which generally includes cases in which an individual is found in possession of a large amount of the drug, can range from a low of several years in prison to a maximum of a life sentence.
Sentences are increased in cases where the sale of MDMA has resulted in death.
Individual states have also passed laws prohibiting the possession or sale of MDMA, and these state laws may be applied in addition to federal charges.
HOW DANGEROUS IS IT?
Both short-term and long-term ecstasy use can result in dangerous health effects, and emergency room visits related to use are common and on the rise in the US.
Two of the most common short-term adverse effects of MDMA use are:
The risk of these effects is heightened in settings such as rave parties or nightclubs, in which dancing can more quickly lead to dangerously low hydration levels and high temperatures.
Additionally, life-threatening and even fatal cases of hyponatremia (low sodium levels) have been reported in MDMA users who consumed large quantities of water to avoid dehydration, but lost excessive amounts of electrolytes through sweating.
MDMA produces its positive effects by altering levels of:
- Other neurotransmitters that control mood.
In the long-term, memory impairment, anxiety, and depression have been reported in the days following moderate use of ecstasy. These mood changes can be worse in chronic users, and, in severe cases, may lead to suicidal ideation.
Finally, because the drug is illegal throughout the world, none of it is produced under the regulated, controlled conditions in which legal pharmaceuticals are manufactured, and the purity and quantity of MDMA found in ecstasy tablets can vary considerably.
The slang term “Molly” (short for “molecule”) is used to refer to supposedly pure MDMA, but the DEA has reported that only 13% of Molly it has tested actually contains any MDMA at all.
Toxic contaminants and “fake” pills, which contain psychoactive substances other than MDMA, may be far more dangerous to users’ health than genuine ecstasy. When individuals have a dangerous reaction to such pills, neither they nor medical personnel know what combinations of drugs have been ingested or their amounts, so treatment is much more difficult.