Examining MDMA prohibition
// Leah Scheitel

Whether taking it or just talking about it, ecstasy has been on the tips of many people’s tongues lately. The drug has recently received a lot of media attention due to the increased number of fatalities caused by impure MDMA doses. Because ecstasy and its ingredients are not regulated, users do not know the quality of the drugs they’re buying, how much to take, or how to care for themselves if things go wrong. In response to the recent deaths, authorities continue to emphasize abstinence when it comes to ecstasy use. Is the prohibition working, or is it time to find a new approach?


On the morning of Jan. 8, 2012, a 22 year-old woman died from an apparent ecstasy overdose. She was the third person in the Lower Mainland to die from taking ecstasy within the same three-week period, and her death was the 18th since the beginning of 2011. Upon further investigation, B.C.’s chief coroner announced that ingesting MDMA pills that were laced with paramethoxymethamphetamine (PMMA) caused five of the deaths.

PMMA is the same chemical that has been linked to recent ecstasy-related fatalities in Calgary as well, and is a highly neurotoxic hallucinogen amphetamine.

“We’ve always know that ecstasy tablets, while they [usually] do include MDMA, could include a variety of things,” said Lisa Lapointe for the B.C. coroner’s office.

While MDMA is the main active ingredient in what people call “ecstasy”, the terms cannot truly be used synonymously. Ecstasy generally refers to MDMA paired with an amphetamine, which is a popular combination when used at parties or in other environments that require high energy levels. The content of ecstasy pills change batch by batch, while MDMA refers to the individual substance.


MDMA, or methlyenedioxy-methamphetamine, was first synthesized in the early 20th century by a German pharmaceutical company, and was patented as a weight-loss pill. In the late 1970s, Alexander Shulgin, an American pharmacologist and chemist, began testing MDMA, and stated that it was the he came to finding the perfect therapeutic drug. Because of his research, MDMA gained a reputation with psychotherapists for enhancing communication with patients, and was particularly useful for marriage counseling. The drug reduced psychological defenses, helping to facilitate self-examination without fear.

In a 2010 double-blind study done by the Journal of Psychopharmacology, they found that “MDMA-assisted psychotherapy can be administered to post-traumatic stress disorder patients without evidence of harm, and it may be useful in patient’s refractory to other treatments.”

The early 1980s saw MDMA gain popularity in nightclubs, and later at raves, eventually deriving the name “ecstasy”, and in 1985, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classified MDMA as a Schedule I controlled substance, which is the classification for drugs which “have no medical uses and a high potential for abuse.”

According to the DEA hearing files kept by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, many experts as well as the Administrative Law Judge overseeing the hearing recommended a Schedule III classification, due to MDMA’s benefits in psychotherapy; however, officials did not agree, and MDMA was made illegal.


It is due to the illegal nature of MDMA that bad pills have become such an issue. Because MDMA is not administered or prescribed, users don’t know exactly what is in the pills they are buying on the black market, nor do they get a recommended dosage so to not overdose. Without knowing how much to take or the exact contents of the drug, it is easy to take too much or to be sold a potentially more dangerous drug on the pretense that it is MDMA.

Police and authorities have warned the public that MDMA manufactured in B.C. is often made in unclean environments, and they have also warned that it is often cut with other drugs, including ketamine, ephedrine, GHB, and speed, among others.

“With a poly-drug like ecstasy that is made up of many different kinds of chemicals, it is impossible to know what is in the pill or tablet, and you are gambling with your own life when you ingest it,” says Lindsey Houghton, the media relations officer for the Vancouver Police Department.

Even with public warnings and education, there is still a market for ecstasy and MDMA. Known for causing feelings of euphoria and ease, the drug has remained popular in the club and rave scenes, among others. Currently, one can buy MDMA in two forms on the black market: in powdered form, or as a pressed pill. Anna Heartwell (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) is an ex-MDMA-seller and recreational user. She believes that the danger lies primarily with pressed pills.

“With a pressed pill, you have no clue what you’re getting,” Heartwell explains. “You can still get cut powder, but generally speaking in Canada, the powder is clean and the pressed pills are dirty.” In her experience, powdered MDMA is cleaner than pills in Canada, and it’s the reverse in the US: the pills are cleaner than the powder.

“Most of the MDMA in North America is made in and around Vancouver,” says Heartwell. “So, when you’re buying powder in Vancouver, because it’s so close from chemist to customer, the vast majority of the time, it is going to be clean.” Powder can be identified by taste, while pressed pills have no identifiable characteristics to ensure they are what they are supposed to be.

Dr. Rob Sebastian, an ER doctor, agrees that there is no way to know what is in pressed pills just by looking at it. “You have to break it down chemically to know exactly what is in it,” he says. “Without doing that, there is no way to know that you have something that is not okay, or that it has been mixed with something else,” he explains.


Tammy Verigin-Burk is the executive director of Freedom Quest, a regional youth service that deals with drug-related issues in the Nelson and Castlegar area. She says that ecstasy has some attractive qualities for youth.

“One of the big attractions, especially for higher-functioning youth, is that you can take the drug – most people typically don’t drink when on it at raves - you can come out of it, and if you’ve waited long enough, it looks like you’ve done nothing,” she says.

In contrast to alcohol, MDMA doesn’t have an odor, cause aggressively loud behavior, or even have by-products like beer cans or vodka bottles. The fact that the drugs and effects are easy to hide from peers and parents is one of the reasons why youth are attracted to MDMA.
“But the actual feeling of ecstasy, the whole love feeling and harmony, the experience in general is quite euphoric, and youth are very attracted to that,” says Verigin-Burk. “You have energy, you dance all night; people see it as quite a pleasant experience.”

Heartwell believes that MDMA’s ability to lower a user’s inhibitions and defenses are what is attractive about it. “It pulls you a step away that you can talk about traumatic stuff without getting wrapped up in the traumatic emotion,” she explains. “It makes you an objective observer of your own emotions.”

This is also the reason why MDMA was used in psychotherapy in the 1970s. Alcohol and cocaine can make a user more aggressive, ketamine can make a person step so far out of their emotions that they might physically hurt themselves, but MDMA provides a way to see your own emotions and feelings in a calm, critical way.

In 2011, the National Institute on Drug Abuse conducted a $1.8 million study to re-examine the cognitive effects of MDMA in response to past research which suggested that ecstasy users performed worse on cognitive exams than non-users. After ensuring that all variables were accounted for, NIDA found that MDMA users did not, in fact, show any signs of cognitive impairment compared to non-users.


With the recent amount of deaths in B.C. alone, it looks as though the official advice to “just say no to drugs” is not working efficiently. Legalizing and administering substances is always a topic of debate. Would the risks of MDMA be lower if it were regulated and administered by the government, or would it enable users to continue abusing substances?

If MDMA were regulated, it would eliminate the multiple changing of hands that occurs in the black market, thus allowing people to buy MDMA in its pure form, and feel safe with what they are using. It would also be much easier to ensure that only adults were buying and using the substance. Several clinical studies have been done since Alexander Shuglin’s original research, which prove the benefits of MDMA for psychotherapy and pain relief, as well as other medical uses. If legalized, further research could be done much more easily.
Legalization would also allow for education on the drug to inform people of the appropriate dosage for their body. Many overdose now because they simply don’t know how much is safe to take. “There are some standards out there coming from the drug using community about the appropriate amount to take, but it really differs. A 115-pound woman and a 200-pound man are going to need a very different amount of drugs to get the same effects,” explains Verigin-Burk.

In an article written for CNN, Jeffery Miron argues that prohibition of any substance increases violence: “Prohibition creates violence because it drives the drug market underground,” he writes. “This means buyers and sellers cannot resolve their disputes with lawsuits, arbitration, or advertising, so they resort to violence instead.” The prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s is a good example of this.

Many believe, however, that legalizing drugs does not reduce crime. “There is always going to be a criminal element to it, no matter what you do,” explains Dr. Sebastian. He speculates that even if the drug were monitored and legal, people might still buy from the black market, where it might be manufactured and sold at cheaper prices. The DEA says that legalizing drugs is not a solution, and say that the legalization of alcohol and tobacco is proof of that, though they do not suggest making alcohol or tobacco illegal.

The Canadian Government released a study conducted by the Canadian Center of Abuse, saying that in 2006, the government spent $17 billion on the social costs of tobacco (death, illness, and economic costs), $14.6 billion on alcohol, and $8.2 billion on “illegal drugs”. Even with all illegal drugs in one category, the government spends almost twice as much on the control of legalized substances. The revenue that the government made on the sales of the alcohol and tobacco did make up for the costs, however.

It is also worth noting that alcohol and tobacco are both physically addictive substances, while the addictiveness of MDMA is controversial, with most research suggesting that it is not addictive, though further research is required to make a conclusive statement. Both alcohol and tobacco are linked to severe long-term health risks, and both substances are firmly embedded within our cultural framework; thus, it is difficult to make a fair comparison with MDMA.


Prohibition or not, experts and dealers agree that something needs to change. Just saying no isn’t enough to keep people away from experimenting with drugs.

“The problem with the Just Say No campaign is that it’s one thing to tell people to say no, but it’s another thing to be reality-based about what happens out in circumstance,” Verigin-Burk says.

If people want to experiment with drugs, education can help ensure a safe experience. “Don’t take pressed pills,” explains Heartwell. “If you’re going to do it, get powder, and get it from someone you know.”

She also suggests owning and using a test kit. is a volunteer organization promoting health and safety within the rave community. They offer test kits to help determine the quality of the drugs and what it could be potentially cut with. Test kits range from about $25 to $50.

With other drugs like cocaine and heroin as proof, prohibiting a substance doesn’t destroy the market or demand for it. With the currently understood risks of pure MDMA seeming quite low, particularly in comparison to currently legal drugs, it is crucial to examine prohibition and whether or not it is helping people by keeping them from trying drugs, or ultimately hurting them by moving the trade into the black market.

//Leah Scheitel, writer
//Graphics by Stefan Tosheff

Enjoy it? Share this on Facebook


© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: