German chemists originally synthesized MDMA, or ecstasy, for pharmaceutical purposes in 1912. During the Cold War, the CIA experimented with MDMA as a psychological weapon. Ecstasy had become a popular party drug by the late 1980s, and it’s recreational use is often associated with rave culture, dance parties and electronic music festivals. Despite the illicit drug’s legal status, some medical researchers now believe MDMA could have therapeutic benefits, particularly among people with PTSD, depression and other behavioral issues.
German chemists discovered 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA, in 1912 while developing other medicines that could stop bleeding.
The substance, they discovered, had unique psychoactive properties. The pharmaceutical company Merck patented MDMA in 1914 as a compound that could have pharmaceutical value. It would be several decades before further drug development would take place.
During the Cold War both the U.S. Army and the CIA experimented with MDMA and other hallucinogenic drugs as weapons.
MK-Ultra, a CIA project started in the 1950s, worked on the application of psychedelics for mind control. The project became notorious for testing psychoactive drugs on unwitting subjects.
The CIA experimented with MDMA as part of MK-Ultra, but only tested the drug on non-human subjects. These experiments produced the first known toxicology studies of MDMA. The drug’s code name was EA-1475.
Therapeutic Uses of MDMA
In the 1970s, some psychiatrists began using MDMA as a psychotherapeutic tool.
They thought it made their patients more willing to communicate and participate in the psychotherapy process. Therapists called the drug “Adam,” because they felt it returned patients to a more innocent state.
But by the 1980s, ecstasy or molly had become more widely known as a party drug. In a 1984 article, the San Francisco Chronicle called the drug “the yuppie psychedelic,” because it was supposedly milder and less dangerous than LSD.
In 1985, as part of the “War on Drugs,” the United States outlawed MDMA under the Controlled Substances Act as a Schedule 1 drug—like marijuana, LSD and heroin—meaning it had a high potential for abuse and no real medicinal value.
Despite this listing, some medical researchers have conducted controlled experiments with MDMA, particularly focused on the drug’s potential to treat people with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), depression, anxiety and other behavioral problems.
The authors of a 2016 analysis of MDMA, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, concluded that the drug “offers a promising treatment for PTSD.”
Types of MDMA
MDMA is usually taken as a pill, capsule or tablet. The pills can be different colors, and they sometimes have cartoon-like images or words printed on them.
“Molly” often refers to a pure, crystalline powder form of MDMA. It’s usually sold in capsules.
Some people think that this makes molly safer than other types of MDMA. This, however, is a potentially dangerous myth.
Tests of confiscated molly show that it’s often mixed with other harmful substances, including methamphetamine or bath salts.
Even pure MDMA may have side effects including increased heart rate, blurred vision, nausea, faintness, chills, and muscle tension.
Effects of Molly
Ecstasy and molly have properties similar to both a stimulant and a hallucinogen. It takes about 15 minutes for ecstasy to enter the bloodstream and reach the brain. Ecstasy’s effects typically last three to six hours.
Users may experience a sense of euphoria and a surge in energy or activity level while using ecstasy. The drug also triggers hormones in the brain that can increase feelings of sexual arousal, trust, emotional closeness and empathy with other ecstasy users.
Not all effects are positive. Ecstasy can cause spikes in heart rate and blood pressure which can be dangerous for people with heart or blood vessel problems.
Ecstasy also raises core body temperature. The drug can interfere with a user’s ability to tell they’re becoming overheated. The risk of ecstasy deaths increases in hot environments such as crowded nightclubs or outdoor music venues, yet even at normal temperatures, ecstasy can kill by overheating the body.
Ecstasy and Rave Culture
Ecstasy has long been associated with rave culture and electronic dance music (EDM) events. Raves are all-night dance parties that often take place at clandestine or “underground” venues such as abandoned warehouses. They may be characterized by drug use, loud music and a psychedelic atmosphere.
Raves first appeared in the United States and Europe in the 1980s, around the time that ecstasy was becoming a popular street drug. It quickly became a mainstay at raves.
Rave culture and electronic dance music culture are often characterized by a sense of harmony and acceptance. For many, there’s a spiritual aspect to it. Users may take ecstasy and other drugs to enhance sensory perception and create feelings of euphoria.
Since the mid-2000s, there have been several ecstasy-related deaths at high-profile electronic dance music festivals, including Electric Daisy Carnival and Electric Zoo. Many of these deaths have been attributed to the drug’s ability to cause overheating.
MDMA (Ecstasy/Molly). National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Raves: a review of the culture, the drugs and the prevention of harm. Canadian Medical Association Journal.
Is Pure MDMA Safer Than Other Drugs? National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens.
The History of MDMA as an Underground Drug in the United States, 1960-1979. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs.
Electronic Dance Music’s Love Affair With Ecstasy: A History. The Atlantic.