As you're probably aware, the vast majority of drugs used illicitly today can be broken into a few key groups. First, there are the depressants, which are substances like benzodiazepines, prescription painkillers, alcohol, and heroin; these are substances that cause the body to slow down and feel lethargic. After depressants, there are the hallucinogens; like the name of this category suggests, hallucinogens are drugs that cause users to have tactile, visual, and/or auditory hallucinations. While hallucinogens aren’t widely considered addicted, they can cause people to behave in ways that put themselves or others at risk. Finally, there are the stimulants, which is a very diverse family of drugs that shares one key trait: They stimulant the central nervous system, causing an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and respiration. But the stimulant we’re going to be focusing on is MDMA.
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What exactly is MDMA?
Some may find it surprising that MDMA is considered a stimulant drug. It could be that MDMA’s ‘club drug’ status and main effects — the distortions in sensory perceptions and tactile sensations — don’t seem to relate to the traditional stimulant characteristics for a number of people. However, MDMA is certainly a stimulant drug for a number of key reasons, which we will come back to in a moment.
It was 1912 when MDMA was synthesized for the first time. The chemist who synthesized MDMA had been looking for a substance that could alleviate abnormal bleeding in much the same way as hydrastinine without violating Bayer’s patent on hydrastinine. Although the substance could be used as a parent compound when synthesizing other substances, interest in MDMA was low, resulting in the substance being filed away and largely abandoned. It wasn’t until 1927 that research on MDMA continued, but this time, the scientist was searching for a similar drug to adrenaline or ephedrine with the latter being quite structurally similar to MDMA.
In 1953, the United States Army commissioned tests on mescaline and a number of its analogues, which included MDMA. The tests were conducted on animals and the intent was to observe the behavioral changes caused by MDMA. Around the time the test results were declassified and published, MDMA started being used recreationally and non-medically. In fact, there’s forensic evidence that MDMA was being used recreationally in Chicago by 1970 and perhaps even earlier. For the most part, it’s believed that recreational MDMA use emerged in response and as an alternative to many of the psychedelic drugs that had become popular at the time.
The emergence of MDMA in civilians’ hands has been attributed to chemist and psychopharmacologist Alexander Shumlin who developed an interest in the drug in the mid-1960s and who would eventually share the formula for the drug’s synthesis with an acquaintance in the American Midwest. While others described MDMA as amphetamine-like, Shumlin — who was infamous for testing MDMA on himself and became an avid user in the process — notably explained that MDMA put users into “an easily-controlled altered state” with “emotional and sensual overtones.” As well, he often compared MDMA to marijuana in terms of the kind of effects the drug provides and to psilocybin — the hallucinogen in ‘magic mushrooms’ — without the hallucinogenic properties.
Today, MDMA (also known colloquially as ‘Molly’) is most familiar as the active ingredient in ecstasy.
Effects of MDMA
While it’s technically a stimulant, MDMA is quite an odd substance for the stimulant family because it offers a number of effects that many wouldn’t typically attribute to the stimulant family. Of course, as a stimulant, the drug causes an increase in energy, blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration. As well, the body’s temperature increases, causing a person to sweat and making him or her likely to become dehydrated in the process. But in addition to those stimulating effects, MDMA is also a very ‘sensual’ drug in that many of its effects involve distortions to the senses.
Many individuals who use MDMA find pleasure in the sensations they experience when feeling different textures and different types of surfaces. As a whole, tactile sensitivity is increased substantially. There’s also an increase in sensitivity to light while intensifying users’ emotions. It’s quite common for MDMA to evoke sexual arousal in users, making them much more emotionally volatile and exacerbating their emotional response. Overall, many users allege that MDMA intensity their emotional and physical experiences, but this effect comes at a cost.
MDMA withdrawal symptoms
As is the case with most other substances, individuals who use MDMA frequently can become dependent on the substance. When someone uses MDMA, the drug causes a surge of neurochemicals in the brain, most of which are related to feelings of happiness and pleasure. If an individual continues to experience surges of these surges over a continuous period of time, the brain adapts by decreasing its own production and activation of those neurochemicals; this means that without MDMA, the individual experiences a deficit of these neurochemicals, which is what causes withdrawal.
Perhaps the most pronounced symptom of MDMA withdrawal is depression. After a period of experiencing intensely elevated moods, the individual ‘bottoms out’, which means that his or her mood plummets once he or she no longer has the MDMA maintaining his or her happiness through high levels of neurochemicals. As well, an individual experiencing MDMA withdrawal will feel lethargic and have little to no motivation. There will also be intense cravings for the drug, insomnia, anxiety, possibly paranoia, loss of appetite, and difficulty remembering things.