In the first Canadian study of its kind, researchers will experiment with the euphoria-inducing drug ecstasy in trauma-survivor therapy.
Two Vancouver therapists imported nine grams of MDMA from a laboratory in Switzerland, one of only two facilities in the world allowed to legally produce it, and will test the drug on 12 patients with severe post-traumatic stress disorder starting Jan. 1, according to the National Post.
Each patient will take the drug under supervision and then work with a therapist for eight hours in psychotherapy. After an overnight stay, they will receive therapy again the following morning.
"Something horrible is done to you, and an alarm starts ringing," psychologist Andrew Feldmár told the Post. "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."
A study in The Journal of Psychopharmacology reported that more than 83 percent of 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.
The 21 patients in the study mostly were rape victims, and experts familiar with the work cautioned that it was preliminary, based on small numbers, and its applicability to war trauma entirely unknown. A spokeswoman for the Department of Defense said the military was not involved in any research of MDMA, according to the New York Times
"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," said Ingrid Pacey, one of the study's researchers.
Pacey told The Post there are many categories of patients who are interested in the treatment.
The drug helped a 46-year-old man, living in San Francisco, get through cleaning up Ground Zero after the attacks of Sept. 11, 200. The man told the Times he was searching for survivors as family members pleaded for information. A therapist administered him MDMA and it rid him of guilt and sadness.
"It changed my perspective on the entire experience of working at Ground Zero," he said. "At times I had this beautiful, peaceful feeling down in the pit, that I had a purpose, that I was doing what I needed to be doing. And I began in therapy to identify with that."
In the Canadian study, the small amount of MDMA administered by therapists would not produce a "high" for the patients, but rather bring tranquility, researchers said. The drug induces oxytocin, which increases sensations of trust and affection. It also reduces activity in the amygdala, which flares during fearful, threatening situations, according to the Times.
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall said the MDMA study offers hope for trauma patients. He drew controversy in June by suggesting that pure, unadulterated ecstasy may not be harmful, and that punitive drug policies were not effective, according to the Post.
"If it's a successful intervention, then I think it deserves broader application," he said.
Feldmár said there is no evidence that MDMA is addictive.
A 2011 study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and published in the journal Addiction found that regular ecstasy use was not associated with cognitive impairment, according to Time
MDMA was first patented in 1912, by Merck pharmacologist Anton Köllisch. Canada banned the drug in 1976. The drug has been illegal in the U.S. since 1985.
In November, Canada upgraded the drug 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.
Because researchers are using it in a scientific study, importing and administering it to patients is legal.
A handful of similar experiments using MDMA, LSD, and marijuana are in the works in Switzerland, Israel and Britain, as well as in the U.S., according to the Times. So far, the research has been largely supported by nonprofit groups.
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