‘It opens your heart’: Canada approves use of ecstasy in study into post-traumatic stress disorder
Published in the National Post | December 28, 2012
Exactly a century after ecstasy was first patented, Health Canada has approved the drug’s import for the first Canadian study using the illegal substance in trauma survivors’ therapy.
The decision to allow two Vancouver therapists to import nine grams of MDMA from a laboratory in Switzerland — one of only two such permitted facilities worldwide — will kickstart the first experiment with the euphoria-and-empathy-producing drug in B.C. on Jan. 1, according to a Health Canada email obtained by the National Post, dated Nov. 23.
Read more of my health reporting:
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• Conservatives’ refugee health cuts rile doctors (The Tyee)
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• Occupy Vancouver death sparks drug debate (The Tyee)
“I don’t know if we’ll have to wait until the MDMA is actually in our hands, but we’ve got a whole list of people who want to come to do it,” Dr. Ingrid Pacey, one of the researchers, told the Post. “There’s a part of me that still doesn’t quite believe it. When the MDMA arrives from Switzerland … when it finally lands on Canadian soil, then I’ll be certain.”
The B.C. study follows U.S. research by Medical University of South Carolina psychiatry professor Michael Mithoefer and wife Ann Mithoefer, a nurse. In the Journal of Psychopharmacology, they reported that more than 83% of several PTSD patients treated with MDMA and therapy had completely recovered, “without evidence of harm.” A follow-up study published last month found that the patients still had virtually no symptoms two years later.
“What the MDMA does, because of the physiological effects, it means you are in a present, fearless state — able to look at those events without being re-traumatized, and healing in the present what was the trauma of the past,” Dr. Pacey said.
For her research partner, psychologist Andrew Feldmár, ecstasy-assisted therapy’s benefits are obvious.
“It brings you into the present,” Mr. Feldmár said. “You don’t worry about the past or the future. It opens your heart; you don’t feel any shame.
“Something horrible is done to you, and an alarm starts ringing. You just don’t know how to turn it off. Even though the war is over, or no one is torturing you, or no one is hurting you, the alarm is still ringing. With the help of MDMA and good therapy, good connection and good company, the alarm can be stilled.”
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall said the local MDMA study is “good news” for treating trauma. He drew controversy in June by suggesting that pure, unadulterated ecstasy may not be harmful, and that punitive drug policies were not effective.
“If it’s a successful intervention, then I think it deserves broader application,” he said in a telephone interview. “What the psychiatrists are saying is that in controlled doses, with a pharmaceutically known product in a safe environment, it can be safely used as an adjunct in therapy.
“PTSD is clearly an issue — and clearly an issue for returning veterans…. Anything that would add a useful addition to any therapeutic armamentarium — particularly one that maybe we lack effective interventions for — would be welcomed here.”
Mr. Feldmár acknowledges that the use of such drugs in therapy is controversial.
The tall, bearded therapist grins, shrugging when the National Post asks if he has tried MDMA.
“That remains a mystery,” he said. “I can’t say that for the record.
“I already have enough trouble going to the States. I’m just hoping to get a waiver so I can go to the MAPS [Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies] international conference and talk about all this.”
Vancouver’s experiment will involve 12 patients with severe PTSD — such as terrifying nightmares, flashbacks, severe anxiety and a loss of trust. Each will take ecstasy in the counsellors’ company, followed by eight hours of psychotherapy. After a supervised overnight stay, more therapy follows the next morning.
Ideally, Dr. Pacey said, the research staff will be able to try MDMA to understand its effects. Has she tried it herself?
“I took it before it was made illegal,” she said. “I remember my first MDMA experience: it was magic; it was fabulous. It really did alter a lot of how I saw the world and myself…. It was beautiful — magical, even.”
MDMA was first patented on Dec. 24, 1912 by Merck pharmacologist Anton Köllisch. Canada banned the drug in 1976.
In November, it was upgraded from a Schedule III to a Schedule I substance, meaning that mandatory minimum sentences — and up to life in prison — would face those caught trafficking or producing it.
“Under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, authority is given to the minister of health to grant all authorizations to use a restricted drug for scientific research or other purposes,” Health Canada spokesman Gary Holub told the Post. “To undertake a clinical trial using a restricted drug in Canada, certain regulatory requirements must be met.
“If the design of the clinical trial does not put the participants’ safety at undue risk, then Health Canada allows the use of the study drug.”
Dr. Pacey said the approval of the Vancouver research offers great hope to those psychologically scarred from trauma.
“A lot of my work has been with women — and some men — who had significant trauma, particularly sexual abuse, as children,” she said.
“Initially, my work was mostly psychotherapy, with some use of traditional psychiatric medications. I found that “I would work up to a certain point, but then make no progress. The deeper underlying fears and physiological changes are very difficult to change.
“My feeling is that the completion of therapy does require something that moves the person beyond their everyday reality. MDMA is a very effective way to really do that last piece of work, that traditional talk therapy and medication does not do.”
Mr. Feldmár adds that there’s no evidence that ecstasy is even addictive. “Some people consider it a sacrament,” he said.
“You ask, ‘Can you get addicted to it?’ Do Catholics get addicted to the sacrament?
“One can get devoted, but that’s not an addiction.”