Published on March 3, 2014 | by Ivo Aleixo

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Can MDMA be used as post-traumatic stress treatment?

A variety of drugs laid out

More than half of the British population believe that the government’s approach to illegal drugs is ineffective [Flickr: Jorge Deepsea]

Although levels of illicit drug use in Britain have declined in recent years, there are still more than 380,000 problem drug-users and more than 2,000 drug-related deaths every year.

Is criminalising people for using drugs the best approach? Could drug laws actually be more harmful than the drugs themselves?

More than half of the British population believe that the government’s approach to illegal drugs is ineffective.

According to a YouGov poll, almost half of Britain believe that illegal drugs are a serious problem affecting the entire country.

However, nearly 90 per cent feel that, realistically, there will always be people who use drugs, and that the aim should therefore be to reduce the amount of harm they cause to users and others.

Addiction

Prohibition not only sends the message that certain drugs are bad, but criminalises non-violent acts, such as drug-taking.

If drugs are illegal, then people who use them are breaking the law, which adds to the stigma of people suffering from addiction who might want to seek help.

It could also be brought into question that the prohibition of certain illegal drugs can be preventing groundbreaking science.

Pioneering research from the UK and the US suggest that MDMA, the active ingredient in the illegal drug ecstasy, could be a useful psychiatric tool to help people deal with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

PTSD is a debilitating mental illness characterised by intrusive memories and panic attacks as a consequence of traumatic events – such as war, sexual assault, childhood abuse, torture, or violent crime.

Research

For people suffering from PTSD, these memories can sometimes be so overwhelming that  they are unable to revisit them, even in the context of therapy.

MDMA, which stands for methylenedioxymethamphetamine, is a Class A substance under the misuse of drugs act, alongside heroin and cocaine, and has been illegal in the UK since 1977.

However, research on how MDMA interacts with the brain, produced by studies at Imperial College London, suggest that the drug induces the release of a hormone called oxytocin, which is thought to increase sensations of trust and affection.

The drug also seems to calm the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure in our brains that some researchers call a fear centre, due to its central role in triggering strong negative emotions.

Expanding on these findings, a government-approved study in America used the drug as a catalyst for psychotherapy.

A group of 12 patients diagnosed with PTSD, including rape victims and a war veteran, were given MDMA as part of their therapy.

Veterans

Colourful pills in jar

In the first ten years of the British rave scene there were up to 500,000 people taking ecstasy every weekend [Flickr: erix!]

Ten of the 12 patients (over 80 per cent) who were given MDMA no longer showed PTSD symptoms after two months of treatment.

The main point is that it wasn’t MDMA that treated the illness, but the mix of the drug and assisted psychotherapy in a clinical setting.

This was only a pilot study and 20 people provide an incredibly small sample. However, it was enough to convince the US government to green light a further study; this time only featuring veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars suffering from PTSD.

There is something deeply ironic about the US government, which has been committed to an unwinnable war against drugs for over four decades, deciding to investigate whether one of the drugs they have been fighting can help war veterans suffering from PTSD.

Substances

Whether you are pro or anti-drugs, both positions can be rigid and inflexible in their own ways and fall into the trap of dogma.

Different substances act in different ways, and even though a blanket term like drugs is used as if their characteristics and effects collectively cohere, the fact is they fall into very different categories, with incredibly differing effects.

In the absence of an unquestioned authority on the subject, in order to separate fact from rumour, evidence-based, data-driven research might be a more useful way to go about it.

Better than scaremongering headlines, which tend to run on surprisingly stereotyped lines.

In the first ten years of the British rave scene, its peak showed 500,000 people taking ecstasy every weekend.

The drug was implicated in approximately 60 deaths, averaging at six per year. As one analysis of media coverage identified, 100 per cent of these deaths made the news, while only two per cent of alcohol-related deaths were reported.

The latest estimate from the NHS Health and Social Care Information Centre concludes that there were 8,748 alcohol-related deaths in the UK in 2011.

In the same year, 79,100 people died in England from deaths caused by smoking, which accounted for 18 per cent of all deaths of adults aged 35 and over.

According to the World Health Organisation, tobacco caused 100 million deaths in the 20th century – to compare, the death toll of World War II is estimated to have been between 40 million and 72 million.

The idea that there will always be people using drugs might seem somewhat defeatist, yet the appetite for intoxication seems to be an all too human impulse, and their illegality isn’t much of a deterrent – if at all.

Every society seems to choose a small number of substances, no matter how toxic and harmful, which it enshrines in its cultural values while prohibiting and diminishing all others.

But by doing so, along with criminalising a non-violent act, it could also be overlooking potential therapeutic benefits that certain substances might hold.

 

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