MDMA, widely known by its street names Ecstasy or Molly, is a popular but illegal “club drug” known for its hallucinogenic and stimulant effects. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Resource Guide, “MDMA causes changes in perception, including euphoria and increased sensitivity to touch, energy, sensual and sexual arousal, need to be touched, and need for stimulation.”
MDMA is a synthetic drug, manufactured in illegal labs and mainly smuggled into the U.S. from Canada and the Netherlands. The DEA has also identified a few labs manufacturing MDMA in the U.S. The pills are colorful and often found by drug enforcement officials hidden in containers of brightly colored candy.
Other common street names for MDMA include XTC, X, E, Adam, Beans, Hug Drug, Clarity, Disco Biscuit, and Love Drug. The drug is usually taken in tablet or capsule form, but some users swallow a liquid form or snort the powder. It is not usually injected. People who purchase the drug specified as “Molly” may believe that name denotes a pure form of MDMA, but there is no way to be certain that’s true.
The DEA classifies MDMA as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” It is not approved for any use, even under medical supervision. Other Schedule 1 drugs include LSD, heroin, and peyote.
What is MDMA and Why is it Dangerous?
MDMA, short for 3,4 methylenedioxymethamphetamine, is synthetically produced from the oil contained in the bark of the sassafras tree. The oil is distilled to produce pure safrole, which is the main ingredient in MDMA. Safrole was banned by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1960 as potentially carcinogenic. The FDA also labeled sassafras bark and oil as unsafe for human consumption and banned them for use as food additives.
When used over time, MDMA damages brain neurons that regulate serotonin, a naturally occurring chemical that impacts memory and other functions. A study supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) found that heavy use of MDMA causes memory impairments that can last even after drug use is stopped.
A study published in the medical journal Addiction supported a correlation between MDMA use and memory impairment. The study, entitled A prospective study of learning, memory, and executive function in new MDMA users found “significant effects of immediate and delayed recall of a visual paired associates learning task between MDMA users and controls,” suggesting a “dysfunction in hippocampal regions as a consequence of MDMA use.”
In addition to the potential for memory problems and carcinogenic effects, MDMA may contain unknown deadly additives. Even in its pure form, the drug can be dangerous. Because it’s an illegal, unregulated drug, it’s also impossible to know if it contains added substances.
The NIDA website warns that MDMA seized by the police often contains dangerous additives such as “cocaine, ketamine, over-the-counter cough medicine, or synthetic cathinone (“bath salts”).” Health consequences from taking these substances, especially when combined with alcohol, can be serious and even life-threatening.
How Does MDMA Affect the Body?
MDMA has been shown to increase levels of three brain chemicals: serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. These chemicals affect various activities and vital functions of the body.
Serotonin has been shown to increase feelings of well-being and is often called the “feel good” chemical. In addition to impacting mood and memory, serotonin helps regulate sleep, sexual desire, appetite, digestion, and social behavior. Because it can trigger sexual arousal, trust, and a desire for closeness, the drug may contribute to risky sexual behavior.
Dopamine interacts with the pleasure and reward system of the brain, reinforcing activities that heighten feelings of enjoyment. It also affects the motor system, energy and activity levels, attention, and learning.
Norepinephrine increases heart rate, blood pressure, and blood flow to muscles, and triggers the release of glucose. These effects can be especially dangerous for those with heart, blood vessel, or kidney problems.
Typically, the effects of MDMA take about 30 minutes to take effect and last between 3 and 6 hours. As the effects start to decrease, users often take a second dose. Negative physical and psychological effects frequently occur. These may include anxiety, paranoia, muscle cramps, nausea, blurred vision, teeth grinding, chills, sweating, and poor muscle control.
Even days after moderate drug use has occurred, negative side effects, similar to withdrawal symptoms, may be experienced, according to Medical News Today. Negative effects of MDMA may include:
- impulsiveness and aggression
- sleep problems
- memory and attention problems
- decreased appetite
- decreased interest in and pleasure from sex
As MDMA often contains other drugs or is used concurrently with alcohol, marijuana, or other drugs, some of these effects may be impacted by those substances. One trend, especially popular among young MDMA users, is called “candy flipping,” which is the concurrent use of MDMA and LSD. Mixing these drugs may contribute to overheating, dehydration, and heart failure.
Because the drug is frequently used in crowded, hot dance clubs by people who are expending high levels of energy, often without sufficient hydration, MDMA use can lead to severe dehydration. Prolonged dehydration may damage the body’s ability to regulate temperature and can lead to liver, kidney, and cardiovascular failure, seizures, brain damage, and death.
The NIDA website gives additional information related to possible short and long-term effects from use of MDMA.
Can you Overdose on MDMA?
An overdose occurs when an individual takes a toxic substance or a dangerously high dose of a drug, intentionally or unintentionally, and may lead to death. Although individuals are unlikely to overdose on MDMA alone, it is possible. As mentioned above, the most common life-threatening result from MDMA use is severe dehydration, which can cause liver, kidney and cardiovascular system failure.
Because MDMA can interfere with the body’s metabolization process, it’s possible for harmful levels of the drug to build up. Difficulty in eliminating the drug from the body also increases the risk of overdose or other adverse side effects.
When MDMA is combined with alcohol, cocaine, dextromethorphan (cough suppressant), or certain other substances, the risk of overdose increases. MDMA and alcohol are frequently consumed together, and the combination blurs the sensation of impairment. Not only does this increase the risk of a motor vehicle or other accidents, it also increases the risk of alcohol poisoning. A person who doesn’t feel impaired is more likely to continue to consume alcohol, which could be deadly.
Additional risks of combining alcohol and MDMA include a greater likelihood of elevated body temperature and decreased coordination and motor function, any of which can be life-threatening.
Is MDMA Addictive?
The FDA, DEA and the NIDA all caution against the use of MDMA. Not only is it illegal, but like all substances that affect the reward centers of the brain, it presents the possibility of misuse and dependence.
As noted above, the DEA warns of the drug’s high abuse potential. Even though the NIDA states MDMA, “affects many of the same neurotransmitter systems in the brain that are targeted by other addictive drugs,” research has not definitively determined whether the drug is addictive.
Studies have found animals do self-administer the drug, which is often an indicator of addiction, although at less intense levels than with drugs like cocaine. Various human studies have found that some MDMA users “do report symptoms of addiction, including continued use despite negative physical or psychological consequences, tolerance, withdrawal, and craving.”
Although research has been inconclusive, some users have voluntarily stated they are addicted to MDMA. After regularly using the drug then stopping use, some people have reported withdrawal side effects of depression, anxiety, loss of appetite, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating.
The Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) has reported an increasing number of hospital emergency room visits related to Ecstasy (MDMA) use in patients younger than 21 years old. Between 2005 and 2011 visits from that age group increased 128%. DAWN also found that about 33% of those visits involved concurrent MDMA and alcohol use.
Research and Treatment for MDMA Dependence
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there are no specific medical protocols for treating MDMA dependence, but suggest cognitive behavioral therapies to be an effective approach. Behavioral therapies help patients identify and change negative thinking patterns and learn to respond more effectively to stressful situations. NIDA also recommends patients attend recovery support groups for long-term recovery.
Seeking Professional Help
If you or a loved one is struggling with a drug or alcohol use disorder, we can help. BlueCrest Recovery Center is conveniently based out of New Jersey and offers safe, comfortable, and highly effective outpatient and intensive treatment programs for those dependent on MDMA or other substances.
Combining therapeutic techniques with a unique holistic approach, our facility’s highly trained, compassionate staff works with you to heal mind, body, and health. Learn more about our approach to addiction treatment, and contact us today for help taking the first step toward living a happy, sober life.