There are many different mind-altering substances, most of which belong to one of just a few categories. For instance, there are depressant substances, including heroin, benzodiazepines, and alcohol. There are also hallucinogens such as psilocybin mushrooms and “acid”, substances that distort a person’s perceptions and senses. However, one of the most dangerous classes of drug is stimulants, which includes cocaine, crystal methamphetamine, and ecstasy. Yes, you’ve read that correctly: Ecstasy is a stimulant drug. In fact, it was historically associated mostly with stimulant drugs and has only recently been somewhat distinguished from that category, partly due to its status as a “club drug”.
We don’t usually associate ecstasy with stimulants because it has so many different properties than other stimulants. On the other hand, there are certain ways that ecstasy and the more common stimulants overlap. Typically, when we talk about ecstasy, we’re actually referring to a substance known as 3.4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA for short. This substance was first created by a German physicist in 1912. The chemist who created MDMA — Anton Kӧllisch — was part of Merck Group, which had an ongoing rivalry with Beyer. Kӧllisch’s goal was to create a substance that could help decrease abnormal bleeding much like Beyer’s hydrastinine while avoiding that substance’s patent. MDMA ended up being an intermediate compound in creating methylhydrastinine; however, since MDMA didn’t really achieve the effects that Kӧllisch was looking for, he largely disregarded MDMA and continued his research.
According to Merck records, the company occasionally tested and experimented with MDMA over the years, including in 1920 and 1927, but is was in the latter year when chemists began to include MDMA in a category of substances that included adrenaline and ephedrine with ephedrine being particularly similar to MDMA on a structural level as well as certain effects. Shortly thereafter, MDMA was shelved once again due to the rising cost of chemicals needed to produce MDMA.
Testing resumed in 1952 as a researcher searched for stimulant substances and circulatory medications. In 1959, additional testing was conducted, but it doesn’t seem that the drug’s effects on humans were well-documented since very minimal testing had been done on humans. Around the same time, the United States Army commissioned toxicity testing on animals with mescaline and similar drugs, including MDMA. These tests were declassified in 1969, which precluded the first known instances of MDMA being used recreationally in 1970; it’s unlikely that the close proximity of the first recreational use of MDMA and the release of in-depth studies were a coincidence.
Regarding its recreational use, MDMA quickly became popular in crowds of psychedelics users. By the mid- to late-1970s, the psychoactive effects of MDMA were becoming fairly well-known, prompting frequent comparisons to stimulant drugs like amphetamine. In 1978, a study that offered an in-depth recount of the drug’s psychoactive effects in humans was published, spurring its use by a number of psychotherapists who advocated for the use of psychedelics and other mind-altering substances in psychotherapy. Throughout the 1980s, MDMA was used with increasing frequency at nightclubs, including the infamous Studio 54 in New York City. Meanwhile, a group of users attempted to sue the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency so that MDMA couldn’t be banned or considered a controlled substance. Just prior to this, the D.E.A. had been granted the ability to put an immediate ban on any substance that could be considered a public threat in some way, which was exercised for the first time with a ban of MDMA on July 1, 1985. However, the F.D.A. would then approve the use of MDMA in studies involving human testing, making it the only psychoactive substance to ever receive government approval for such a purpose.
The reason that discussions of ecstasy often become discussions of MDMA is because the latter is the active ingredient in ecstasy and what gives ecstasy its effects. As well, despite officially being a stimulant, most users don’t necessarily view ecstasy as a stimulant because many of its most dominant effects involve changes in sensory and tactile perception, which many would say makes it someone similar to hallucinogenic substances.
Ecstasy — also frequently referred to as ‘E’, ‘Molly’, and ‘Rolls’ — is a powerful drug that comes in a pill or tablet form and is usually taken orally. Due to its oral administration, ecstasy takes some time for the effects to set it compared to the almost instantaneous effects of drugs that are smoked or injected. One of the first effects is a ‘rush’ of euphoria; users often report feeling warm and tingly throughout their bodies, particular in their limbs and extremities. Meanwhile, the individual’s senses are distorted and amplified, which has the effect of exaggerating tactile sensations, causes a person to perceive immense pleasure from even mundane or ordinary stimulation, and can sometimes put users in a state of enhanced libido and arousal. The drug also causes distortions in perception of time and an increase in energy level.
Like most other psychoactive drugs, an individual can become dependent on ecstasy if he or she continues to take the substance frequently over an extended period of time. With repeated abuse, ecstasy throws off the brain’s neurochemical balance, which becomes most problematic when the individual isn’t under the influence of ecstasy; since the brain has become accustomed to ecstasy perpetuating neurochemical activation, the brain experiences a deficit when there’s no ecstasy in the individual’s system, leading to symptoms of withdrawal. Some of the most characteristics symptoms of ecstasy withdrawal include intense cravings for the drug, depression, anxiety, insomnia, panic attacks, nausea, the perception of having an out-of-body experience, paranoia, and an inability to distinguish fantasy from reality.
Although ecstasy/MDMA is an incredibly powerful and potentially dangerous drug, individuals who have become addicted to ecstasy have a variety of recovery resources available to them. In particular, there are detox programs available for individuals who have become addicted to stimulant drugs, including ecstasy; a detox program gives individuals the chance to break their physical dependence on ecstasy in preparation for the next stages of recovery, which involves psychotherapy and other forms of treatment. More often than not, individuals addicted to mind-altering substances are encouraged to enroll in inpatient programs, which provide a safe, drug-free place in which to focus on recovery.
However, there are many other resources available for those who have developed an ecstasy problem. The important thing to remember is that there’s still hope whether you’re addicted to ecstasy, some other stimulant drug, or any substance at all.
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