The Oxford Student recaps the turbulent history of MDMA one century after its creation. From an unrecognized chemical to a widely used (and abused) party drug to a promising therapeutic tool, MDMA has challenged and excited researchers for generations.
2012 marks the hundredth anniversary of the creation of MDMA, the active ingredient in the recreational drug commonly known as Ecstasy. MDMA has had a turbulent history, one interwoven with Cold War experiments and secretive multinational chemical companies, but it is its lasting appeal among students as the party drug of choice which has led to its outlawing across the globe.
Created in 1912 by the German pharmaceutical company Merck and patented in 1913, MDMA remained out of sight and out of mind for more than 40 years; believed to be nothing more than a failed diet pill, the company had no idea of its potential. Now the third most popular recreational drug (solvents and marijuana sit in a comfortable first and second), many feel it could have rejuvenated a drug market collapsing around the declining opium dens of Western Europe. It was not until the early 1950s and the beginning of America’s infamous MK-ULTRA drug experimentation program that it was rediscovered. The environment of the Cold War, and the growing hostility between the USA and the USSR, led to an atmosphere in which increasingly macabre and absurd experiments were performed. These experiments had the stated goal of controlling the minds of participants and altering brain function to such a degree that they became excessively violent with no memory of what had occurred. MDMA was allegedly used in these experiments as a truth-serum, albeit with limited positive results.
MDMA became a common recreational drug in the late 1970s when it was resynthesized by the chemist Alexander Shulgin. Shulgin wrote in his lab notes: ‘I feel absolutely clean inside, and there is nothing but pure euphoria. I have never felt so great or believed this to be possible… I am overcome by the profundity of the experience…’. The drug was used for just under a decade in psychotherapy and nicknamed ‘Adam’ in reference to the state of calm and innocence it seemed to induce in the user.
In the late 1980s the drug went underground and there it found a burgeoning electronic music scene which seemed to cater for more regular users. Throughout the 1990s until now, MDMA was and is the most prolific drug on the UK party scene; it is used for its short term effects of euphoria and for the long term dependency it induces, which allow the user to escape the realities of ordinary life.
Aside from the mephedrone hype a few years ago, MDMA has remained the most popular drug in Oxford. Many feel that the use of marijuana is injurious to both their attention span and to their studies, and so many opt for the short term high. What is less well known is that 1 in every 150,000 users will die after ingesting the drug, particularly in pills of extremely high or low quality. MDMA use is reserved for a minority niche of the Oxford student population, but it is a niche perhaps unaware of the unsettling effects, and history, of its drug of choice.