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A Complete History of Ecstasy

drugs dealer at spring break party selling ecstasy to teenager

Ecstasy, commonly called MDMA, is a recreational drug popular for its psychoactive highs, with visual and emotional hallucinations. Users report significant feelings of euphoria, empathy, and enjoyment, making ecstasy one of the most popular party and rave drugs available. At the same time, ecstasy is a Schedule I drug, rated has having a high potential for abuse with no accepted medical use. People who use it are taking an illicit drug with a range of adverse side effects.

Despite that, nearly 1 million people in the United States use MDMA, with an estimated 37% of clubgoers using it occasionally. If you or a loved one is using the drug, it’s important to understand what ecstasy is, how it works, and what kinds of side-effects it can have.

Early History

Ecstasy or methylenedioxymethylamphetamine was synthesized in 1912 in an attempt to replicate the effects of hydrastinine, a drug patented by Bayer and used to stop bleeding during and after surgery and accidents. The German chemist Anton Köllisch believed MDMA could be used to synthesize hydrastinine, which was true. The life-saving drug hydrastinine is actually produced as a side-effect or waste product during the manufacture of ecstasy. Köllisch filed a patent for producing MDMA in 1912 and the drug entered the market – but with most focus on its ability to synthesize hydrastinine. Later, focus shifted to MDMA’s adrenaline-like effects on the body. However, it wasn’t until the 1950s that researchers and college students began using it experimentally to study everything from blood-pressure to adrenal response.

Mass Synthesis

Until 1965, MDMA was extremely expensive to synthesize and produce. Therefore, studies were limited. But, in 1965, Alexander Shulgin developed a cheap way to synthesize the drug – effectively introducing it to research across the United States. Within 5 years, the drug had filtered out of the labs and into recreational usage. Users compared its effects to amphetamines and were often students involved in trials. Shulgin himself was also a large proponent of recreational ecstasy usage, recommending it for usage in therapy – to the point where over 4,000 therapists across the U.S. and Europe were trained to use MDMA in treatment.

By 1985, MDMA was mass-produced and largely not limited to campuses. Instead, it was manufactured and distributed across the east coast as part of the region’s booming club scene, and it would never leave. By the 2,000s, MDMA was one of the four most common recreational drugs – although it has since lost that place.

Illegalizing Ecstasy

Ecstasy was widely recognized as a popular street drug by the end of the 1970s. Drug raids increasingly turned up larger and larger stores of MDMA. In 1982, government estimates showed that over 30,000 ecstasy pills were produced in the state of Texas every single day. The federal government responded by giving the drug an emergency Schedule I classification to limit its spread and use. The case went to court, as therapists were using the drug as part of treatment. But, as the treatment hadn’t been studied and tested, most medical usage of the drug stopped.

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Drug Trials

MDMA remains illegal in every part of the United States. However, it was legalized for research purposes in 1986. In addition, the FDA frequently approved trials to assess MDMA for therapy and treatment. Today, there is some evidence that MDMA could help patients be more open for therapy and treatment – especially in cases of trauma. However, those doses are typically micro doses and not enough to cause the euphoria and extreme reactions of a high. In addition, those studies are not complete, and no one should attempt to use ecstasy as a psychological treatment without medical supervision.

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Ecstasy Today

In 2020, an estimated 2 million adult people used Ecstasy at least once a month. Unfortunately, because of lack of substance controls other than illegalization, those pills are often cut with more dangerous drugs, more addictive, and poorly dosed. Ecstasy pills are often contaminated with methylone, bath salts (mephedrone), MDPV, and ethylene, all of which are significantly more harmful than the drug they’re used to strengthen. That’s important, because ecstasy on its own ranks 18 on the list of most to least harmful popular drugs (20 is the least harmful). Pure ecstasy is available, but also significantly more expensive than cut drugs.

Today, ecstasy is also most-often used in club and party settings, with effects kicking in 30-60 minutes after consumption and tapering off after about 3.5 hours. And, while often seen as harmless, ecstasy does have side-effects, including long-term risks, and a rare potential for overdose. It also has a light profile for addiction, but still causes withdrawal symptoms in long-term and heavy users.

Short-term effects:

  • Dehydration
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea / vomiting
  • Teeth grinding
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating
  • Loss of appetite
  • Paranoia
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Impulsiveness
  • Memory impairment

While these problems are light, they can be more severe than you’d expect. For example, diarrhea and dehydration can cause increased levels of dehydration, which can be fatal. In addition, many users drink excessive amounts of water, which can result in low salt and electrolyte levels in the body.

Ecstasy can also cause longer term side effects, although these are poorly studied in comparison with other drugs. For example, it is well known that MDMA permeates the blood brain barrier, which is why it causes depression and anxiety. In addition, MDMA is an immunosuppressant, which means that long-term heavy users are significantly more likely to experience illness and severe illness. Ecstasy is also toxic to developing fetuses, meaning that women who use while pregnant will likely give birth to children with severe motor development issues.

Finally, some users experience overdose with the drug, which most often results in cardiac arrest, convulsions, respiratory distress (difficulty breathing) and hypothermia. These symptoms may be mild or severe but should be treated immediately.

Recovering from MDMA Abuse

While Ecstasy has a light addiction profile, it does cause withdrawal symptoms. Here, long-term users are likely to experience:

  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Depression
  • Cravings
  • Tolerance

If you or a loved one is using MDMA, it can cause substance dependance. That means you do need addiction treatment, although most of that is likely behavioral therapy and treatment of underlying problems. In addition, you may need treatment for drug-caused depression and anxiety, paranoia, and cravings. MDMA is safer than many other Schedule I drugs, but it still causes dependence, and you may still need significant help to get clean.

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