Decades ago, ecstasy — yes, MDMA — was used in marriage counseling

A revival is occurring, and we sure can use it.

  • For the first decade after it was synthesized, MDMA was used in individual and couples therapy.
  • Many therapists spoke against the criminalization of MDMA in 1985 due to the drug's therapeutic potential.
  • A revival has occurred in recent years, with the government allowing clinical trials to move forward.

Before the second "M" was affixed to "MDA," researchers spent decades searching for a utility for the mescaline derivative. Patented as "methylsafrylamin" in 1914 by Merck, the drug was shelved because no one could quite figure out what to do with it — similar to the incredible story of LSD.

That was until California pharmacologist Gordon A. Alles realized that MDA was rather interesting, indeed. He partnered with Chilean psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo to test out this "psychotherapeutic" substance. Naranjo's partner, Alexander Shulgin, synthesized the more commonly known MDMA, which proved to be less hallucinogenic and less toxic than its original formation.

An early enthusiast was psychotherapist Leo Zeff, who began using psychedelics such as LSD in his practice in 1961. A few years later he discovered MDA through an associate of Shulgin. In 1977, Shulgin introduced Zeff to his new synthesis, which the therapist immediately took to. He trained more than 150 therapists in its usage over the next 12 years, administering it to over 4,000 clients.

This changed in 1985 when the U.S. government labelled MDMA a Schedule 1 drug, claiming it has no therapeutic utility. Many therapists offered testimony to the contrary, to no avail. Zeff, along with many others, went underground. This wasn't the government's first foray into an MDA derivative: in the 1950s the U.S. Army declared it to have no military use since the only feeling it seemed to invoke was compassion. In a country that spends more on defense than any other nation in history, this simply would not do.

As with many other victims of the "war on drugs," both Nixon's and Reagan's, MDMA got itself in trouble by becoming popular outside of therapy, namely on dance floors. Teenagers enjoying themselves dancing to club music was apparently a social burden. Granted, as with virtually every substance, MDMA has a toxicity level that must be recognized; not every club night ended happily. To declare it useless, however, points more to the mindset of the administration than the therapist's couch.

Rick Doblin On Using MDMA In Couples Therapy

Especially when that couch is a bed. While MDMA is now being shown to help alleviate PTSD, and many therapists used it in individual counseling in the 1970s and '80s, couples received immense benefits from ingesting this "love drug" in its early days. Rick Ingrasci, who used LSD in therapy until it was banned, turned to MDMA next. Between 1980–85, he treated 100 patients in over 150 sessions; a third of his sessions were with couples.

To be clear, MDMA is not a "sexual" drug. When Ann Shulgin, Alexander's therapist wife, administered it to patients, she made them consent to the "four agreements," one of which was "no sexual activity." Confusing boundaries could easily be breached when one is in such an open, transparent state.

That does not mean there is no sensual element. Sensuality in this context requires a redefinition, such as the way your favorite food enlivens your senses and a song embeds itself deeply into your consciousness. A strong bonding element is possible with MDMA, which applies to one's mindset as easily as relationship challenges faced by couples.

Professionals have always realized this. While Friederike Meckel Fisher was imprisoned for using psychedelics, including MDMA and LSD, in her therapy practice after a spurned client retaliated, she now advocates for their usage in couples therapy. MDMA alleviates fear, she says, which allows individuals to access parts of their minds they might normally suppress. When you feel safe being vulnerable with your partner the potential for healing and growth becomes possible.

MDMA’s impact on romantic relationships - Katie Anderson

Others are stepping forward despite the law. Katie Anderson, in the Psychology Department at London South Bank University, recruited participants in a 2016 study called "MDMA: The Love Drug." She coined the term, "MDMA bubble," to describe the "protective casing" a couple enters as the substance takes hold. The sense of connectivity it offers serves as a powerful mechanism for dealing with past traumas and moving forward with confidence and clarity.

While the legislative focus has been on the dangers of drugs, deaths related to MDMA (and psychedelics generally) often occur in unstructured environments with unreliable doses and quality. In a clinical setting this is rarely the case. MDMA has been observed to "increase heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperatures," though for healthy individuals this is not a big problem, especially when the benefits include emotional clarity, navigating intimacy, bonding, self-awareness, authenticity, expanded sensitivity, and the ability to discuss sexual fantasies in a safe environment.

MDMA could prove to be a powerful antidote to the loss of the "romance period" of new relationships as it expresses the same chemistry: dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. Considering the DEA gave the thumbs up to clinical testing of MDMA for PTSD in 2015, there is no reason for it to remain a Schedule 1 substance. There is therapeutic utility, as the above and other research shows.

Simply put, we need it. While millennials waiting longer to get married has caused a plummet in the divorce rate, American couples still split roughly half of the time. MDMA is no silver bullet, but ever since it was synthesized many have found success using it. The fact that the DEA is loosening its grip is a step in the right direction. For individuals and couples, more steps are needed.

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Stand up against religious discrimination – even if it’s not your religion

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Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

Antonio Masiello/Getty Images
Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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Technology & Innovation
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