The State of Ecstasy: The Medicine, Science and Culture of MDMA

The State of Ecstasy: The Medicine, Science and Culture of MDMA
The Golden Gate Club at the Presidio, San Francisco, CA
February 2, 2001
8:30 AM - 5:30 PM

The use of MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine), popularly known as "Ecstasy," has, according to former Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey, "skyrocketed" in recent years. Government surveys show an increase in Ecstasy use among teens while their use of other illegal substances has leveled off. U.S. Customs reports the seizure of millions of pills, while the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reveals the involvement of organized crime in the distribution of MDMA. Emergency room "mentions" have gone up and several deaths have been attributed to the use of Ecstasy, the majority in the context of large dance parties known as "raves." Finally, National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) researchers have expressed great concern about neurotoxicity, citing new findings indicating that even small amounts of MDMA might be problematic.

In December of 1999, NIDA launched a $54 million research and education initiative which, along with the Office of National Drug Control Policy's media campaign, warns young people about the dangers of "club drugs." In early 2000, legislators proposed stiffer penalties for manufacture, distribution and possession, while the DEA held a conference to educate its agents about the nature of the drug that has taken the country by surprise. Ecstasy has been the topic of no less than 1000 news stories, and Time magazine featured the drug on its cover in June of 2000. Sensationalistic television shows such as 60 Minutes, 20/20, and Dateline have gone inside raves and shown adverse reactions to substances claimed to be Ecstasy.

For nearly 30 years, claims of risks and benefits have diverged widely. Proponents of therapeutic use have called the drug "a penicillin for the soul." Detractors have labeled Ecstasy "the worst new drug to hit the streets since heroin." Somewhere in between are scientists and physicians who believe MDMA to be less harmful than popular claims; those who wish to conduct research on both therapeutic and recreational use; those who seek a deeper understanding of how MDMA works on the brain; those who want to reduce the harms associated with use; and the millions of users who simply do not know what or whom to believe.

The purpose of "The State of Ecstasy: The Medicine, Science and Culture of MDMA" was to determine, as objectively as possible, what is actually known about this drug. In this one-day conference, experts convened to discuss clinical and therapeutic uses, scientific research into potential neurotoxicity, and the culture of Ecstasy, including recreational use and raves. The goal of the conference was to formulate pragmatic recommendations for advancing the state of knowledge and health policy about MDMA.