What is MDMA?


MDMA, often referred to as “ecstasy” or “molly”, is short for 3,4 methylenedioxymethamphetamine, a psychoactive drug derived from safrole oil. MDMA produces effects that resemble both stimulants and psychedelics, as well as its signature effect: a feeling of connectedness. It impacts brain function primarily releasing the neurotransmitter serotonin, and also temporarily inhibits its reuptake. MDMA is usually taken orally, whether in pressed pill form, powder or crystal; or sometimes snorted.

MDMA was originally synthesized in 1912 by the drug company Merck.1 However, its psychoactive effects weren’t widely discovered until 1976 when Alexander Shulgin developed a new synthesis method, tested the drug on himself, and shared it with a few friendly psychotherapists.2 Because of the drug’s effects of increasing empathy and reducing fear, it started to be used in psychotherapy practices in the 1970s and early 80s, as well as recreationally.

In 1985 it became classified by the federal government as a Schedule I drug, meaning among the “most dangerous,” along with marijuana, LSD and heroin. Studies have shown, however, that MDMA is among the least harmful drugs (see question 6 for more details). Despite its Schedule I status, MDMA is still commonly used at festivals, concerts and clubs; and research is ongoing into its therapeutic benefits.


  1. European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drugs Addiction, "Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA or 'Ecstasy') drug profile," http://www.emcdda.europa.eu/publications/drug-profiles/mdma.
  2. “Surfing the Rave: Ecstasy Interview with Dr. Alexander Shulgin,” http://www.mdma.net/alexander-shulgin/mdma.html.

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Shelley's Story

Shelley’s Story

Shelley Goldsmith was 19 when she died after taking MDMA and going to a club in DC. Her mother, Dede Goldsmith, believes her death may have been preventable if drug education and harm reduction services were more widely available and accepted.

Learn more about Dede’s campaign and the work of DPA’s Music Fan program to promote compassionate, health-based responses to drug use at festivals, concerts and clubs.

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