Ecstasy Headed to Hospitals for Cancer Patients?
Study approves drug to be tested on terminally ill
February 22, 2005 10:01 AM
Ecstasy, the illegal drug made popular by club-goers for the heightened sense of euphoria it causes, will soon be tested on terminally ill cancer patients to see if those euphoric feelings can ease their pain and anxiety as they face the end of their lives.
The four-month long study, which was approved on December 17, by the Food and Drug Administration, is expected to begin early this spring at McLean Hospital, a major teaching hospital affiliated with the Harvard Medical School. The goal of the study is to see if the effects of the hallucinogen will make it easier for patients to deal with their families and the unique end-of-life issues that they face.
“End-of-life issues are very important and are getting more and more attention, and yet there are very few options for patients who are facing death,” said Dr. John Halpern, the Harvard research psychiatrist in charge of the study, in a press release.
Ecstasy, which known under the chemical name of 3,4 methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), works by releasing serotonin from the brain in large amounts, giving users feelings of calm and increased empathy. The drug has become increasingly popular over the last decade, especially with many young people in the dance scene.
Marsha Rosenbaum, director of the Drug Policy Alliance in San Francisco, conducted one of the first federally-funded research studies on MDMA in 1987. Although her study researched the sociological aspects of using the drug, she said that she is delighted that this new research is about to begin.
“We’ve known since the late ‘70s that MDMA was an incredible tool for psychotherapy,” Rosenbaum said. “That was what its initial use was, before it became a recreational drug.”
The study is being sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a non-profit group based out of Sarasota, Fla. The group plans to raise $250,000 to fund the research.
“The longest day of winter has passed, and maybe so has the decades-long era of resistance to psychedelic research,” said Brandy Doyle, in a statement released on the group’s Web site. “This ensures that we will now be able to begin psychedelic research at Harvard for the first time since studies ended in 1965, doing it carefully with the advantage of hindsight and the lessons learned from the past.”
Harvard has in the past been the site of psychedelic drug research, most notably that of Timothy Leary in the 1960s. Leary was dismissed from the university for using undergraduates in his LSD experiments in 1963. Two years later, all psychedelic drug research at Harvard was halted, until now.
Though researchers are touting the benefits of MDMA for those facing near death, not everyone is convinced.
San Francisco resident Jennifer Gould, 29, witnessed her stepfather struggle with a cancer that eventually took his life. She said the final months were extremely hard, but she is not sure if ecstasy would have been a solution.
“I think a drug would mask a person’s feelings,” Gould said. “My father was a strong person, and for him, I think he would have wanted to face the end with his family and friends with a clear mind.”
Rosenbaum, however, said she sees the research as a very positive thing.
“Ecstasy helps people to confront, in a comfortable way, their fears and helps them to open up conversations with loved ones,” Rosenbaum said.
The drug is currently classified by the Drug Enforcement Agency as a Schedule I drug, defined as having a high abuse potential and no medical value. The study group is currently awaiting a special Schedule I license from the DEA before they can begin their research.
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