It was while speaking with a Marine combat veteran about how his unit leads the armed forces in suicide rate that the fun concept of supporting MDMA-assisted psychotherapy met the stark reality of what PTSD-sufferers are really living with. For me, this conversation drove home the reason why making MDMA therapy available is so incredibly important.
This moment happened last Friday in Fort Worth, Texas, where I attended a “psychedelic dinner” hosted by artist Sarah Ayala at The Greenhouse 817 to support the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies’ (MAPS) efforts to further MDMA research. Specifically, MAPS is raising funds to conduct phase 3 clinical trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for people with treatment-resistant post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).
Sarah shared with me that she wanted to host a psychedelic dinner in her city as her way of advocating for psychedelics and their medicinal value: “I wanted to spread awareness about MAPS and the idea that psychedelics can and should be used as medicine. The concept is growing and I think it needed a push here in Fort Worth, which is mostly conservative.” As an attendee and contributor to the event, I witnessed what she described unfold as many self-identified “conservative” attendees were exposed to the promise of MDMA therapy and its history for the first time. Talking with the dinner’s attendees, my own eyes opened in a big way as well.
“Adam” and the Rise and Fall of Ecstasy
To understand the current state of MDMA research, it’s helpful to take a look back at its history. Since its inception 30 years ago, MAPS has been leading the charge to secure MDMA as a prescription drug that psychotherapists can use in counseling sessions with PTSD sufferers. MDMA is particularly effective for treating PTSD because the chemicals that MDMA releases in the brain — oxytocin and prolactin — greatly enhance feelings of trust and bonding. This allows patients to feel a rare sense of security and connection that allows them to revisit traumatic memories in a safe setting and release the deep-seated stranglehold that post-traumatic stress has on the psyche.
In the 1980s, knowing these medicinal benefits, MAPS founder Rick Doblin and others petitioned the DEA to designate MDMA as a Schedule 2 substance so that it could remain available for medicine and research. Under the code name “Adam,” MDMA had been used since the 1970s as a legal psychotherapeutic tool by networks of therapists. But when MDMA became popularized as the street drug “Ecstasy” in the 80s, Doblin and others could see the writing on the wall that federal action would soon clamp down on MDMA, most likely without any regards to its medical value.
Unfortunately, they were right. Despite coordinated efforts and recommendations from panels of experts, MDMA was classified as a Schedule 1 substance — the harshest designation for illegal drugs that the DEA has. This effectively cut off all MDMA research and therapy for decades.
The Cost of War and Living with PTSD
I first saw the combat veteran (whom I’m going to call Greg) circling around the outskirts of the fundraiser. Greg had come alone after a lot of trepidation about what sort of scene he’d be stepping into — he stood out from the crowd somewhat, like some of the other veterans in attendance, with a hint of a psychic heaviness in the way he carried himself. When I spoke to him, I could sense minute sparks of terror, yearning, and sadness alternating across his eyes, too fast to really see, perhaps, but not too fast to sense. Greg — like the other veterans who’d come to see what this dinner was all about — was carrying heavy memories and impressions, like Atlas holding up the dark half of the world that nobody wants to see. They were not there to shift paradigms of consciousness or to dissolve the status quo. They were there to see if perhaps no more of their friends had to die, and if there might be hope for them, too.
As someone dealing with PTSD from his time in the Middle East, Greg shared with me just how hard, if not impossible, it was to find proper treatment. He had tried the medications that are commonly prescribed for the disorder and they were just not for him. As an electrician, he couldn’t afford to be a space cadet on the job — his safety was at stake.
Greg described how lucky he was to even have a job. PTSD carries a strong stigma with it, and it was challenging for him and his fellow veterans with PTSD to find work if they were upfront with their condition when they applied. As Greg explained to me from experience, prospective employers are known to discriminate against people who have PTSD because of fears that they will “lose it” on the job and become a liability. In addition to employers, their friends, relatives, and acquaintances can react in similar ways and distance themselves from someone once they hear they have PTSD. This only serves to amplify the feelings of alienation that PTSD already creates.
As a veteran who’s exhausted the commonly-prescribed PTSD treatments and is still profoundly affected by his PTSD, Greg is exactly the kind of “treatment-resistant” patient MAPS is hoping to help with its recent studies.
The Hope of MDMA for Treating PTSD
What brought this all home to me at the end of the evening were two numbers. The first was 22: the average number of US veterans who commit suicide every single day (some independent groups put this number as high as 35 per day). And the second was 83%: the success rate seen in MAPS’s pilot studies with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. That means that more than 8 out of 10 people who underwent this treatment were effectively cured of their PTSD diagnosis and able to reclaim their lives. It dawned on me, there at the end of the night, that during the course of the dinner, three more veterans had taken their lives while we ate, mingled, and appreciated art.
With unexpected tears in my eyes, I couldn’t help but think, didn’t Greg deserve a chance to undergo PTSD therapy that has this unprecedented of a success rate? Didn’t every veteran and non-veteran with PTSD deserve that chance?
People like Greg and his fellow veterans are caught between a war in their past and the War on Drugs in the present. The silver lining is found in the people behind MAPS and individual supporters like Sarah, who choose to stand up and lend their voice. The manageable risks associated with taking the psychedelic MDMA in a clinical setting are small compared to the cost of letting more people become statistics.
“Nature Loves Courage”
When the event was over, Sarah shared how much of a success it was: “We met our monetary fundraising goal, but we also met other goals as well. We wanted people who have had positive psychedelic experiences to publicly show support for the idea of MDMA as a treatment tool for PTSD. And we wanted people who were curious about the medicinal effects of psychedelics and the values of MAPS to open their minds and ears and ask questions. Overall we wanted to spread awareness, and we most certainly succeeded.”
When I asked her what advice she had for others who might be willing to take the same leap from being a psychedelic fan to a psychedelic advocate, she said
“Nature loves courage. You can accomplish more than you think, even with little resources and time to plan. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from others who support the cause and remember that it is part a larger picture of advancing the human condition that you get to be a part of.”
After a fun albeit emotional event, I found myself extremely humbled by the many people at the dinner that had showed that kind of courage — Sarah for putting on a fundraiser like this for the first time, Greg for facing each day with PTSD and stepping out of his comfort zone to come to the event, and the people behind MAPS who are advancing the cause of MDMA therapy for people in great need. Making MDMA-assisted psychotherapy available for people with PTSD cannot happen too soon, and we can get there — and soon — if we step up and work for it in whatever small or large ways we can.
You can help make psychedelic therapy a legal treatment by donating to complete the second-largest study of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). By making a tax-deductible donation to finance this important research, you can help make the future of MDMA therapy a reality for veterans and others suffering from PTSD.