Famously known as the happy pill, MDMA is fast becoming the drug of choice for our generation. But the common myth that MDMA is a pure and harmless drug is dead wrong. Sarah Del Giallo unravels the truth about MDMA and finds out why scientists are saying what makes you happy can be a hard pill to swallow.
It’s Saturday night and 21-year-old Jake Swain slumps down against a wall in the corner of his room. His hair is dishevelled, his pupils are wide and jarring and his jaw is clenched. Less than 20 minutes ago Swain swallowed MDMA, a drug that normally makes him laugh, dance and feel confident. But tonight, he feels completely out of it.
He is weak and disoriented. The black keys of the keyboard beside him appear to be jumping from one space to the next. MDMA, a drug Swain claims is a cleaner and purer form of
Ecstasy, has left him feeling confused and drained of excitement.
Commonly known as ecstasy, MDMA has hit another boom in drug culture. While the chemical was previously popular in the rave scene, it’s starting to pop up in mainstream nightclubs and more surprisingly, in the systems of young professionals and university students.
So far this year the Toronto Police Service has seized approximately 40 per cent more MDMA compared to last year.
MDMA stands for methylenedioxymethamphetamine, and a large portion of its chemical makeup is identical to meth. It is either taken orally or snorted, and the average dose, between 100 and 125 mg, costs users $10.
Drug researchers like Dr. Stephen Kish, a senior scientist and head of the human neurochemical pathology laboratory
in the neuroscience department at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), believe people who use ecstasy moderately (about twice a month) will suffer damage to their serotonin, a hormone that controls mood. He said habitual users risk ruining their natural ability to feel happiness.
“If we know that serotonin affects mood, and we know that ecstasy damages serotonin neurons, we’re going to have a group of ecstasy users who will be developing depression,” he said.
This puts users who believe the common myth that MDMA is a purer form of ecstasy and therefore, less harmful to the brain, at risk. This serious misconception is one of the reasons why MDMA is becoming so popular and why it keeps people like Swain coming back for more.
The effects of MDMA include mild euphoria, increased sociability, self-confidence and
decreased fear, as well as increased body temperature and increased blood pressure.
“It’s amazing. You have no worries. You’re just happy for a few hours,” said third-year information technology management student Amir
Najafi, 21. ”The first time was like the happiest I’ve ever been, and now I have to do more to get that happy.”
Najafi takes MDMA every six or seven weeks. He gets his drugs from a friend and trusts that it’s pure.
Katelyn, a fourth-year graphic communications management student, has been using MDMA since April and enjoys it because of the energy boost it gives her. She can do things that she’s usually too exhausted for.
“I can run around and be loud and be funny. It allows me to be that outgoing person that I want to be and that I know that I am,” said Katelyn.
Like Swain, Katelyn and Najafi believe MDMA and Ecstasy are different. Najafi calls Ecstasy a garbage-filled form of MDMA. While Najafi has heard that MDMA is bad for the brain, he prefers taking the drug more than drinking.
“You’re happier on MDMA. You have so much energy. You could go to a club and just dance all night,” he said. “Everyone likes to party, and it’s a party drug. After doing MDMA, drinking’s not as fun.”
The MDMA hangover often includes an unhappy, unfriendly demeanor, fatigue and slight cognitive issues like memory loss. It can last between one and four days depending on the user.
Swain has been using MDMA in moderation for about two years and said he feels energized when approaching the peak of his high. But following the climax, his high crashes and everything feels calm.
“MDMA is like the fifth person at the party.
It feels like there’s another friend there bringing everyone together. And when you come down, it’s like that friend has left,” said Swain who has experienced some bad hangovers after using the drug.
Katelyn said the day after using MDMA she often feels very down and uninterested. She recalls a comedown when she was furious with her boyfriend although he’d done nothing wrong.
“You’re depleting your brain of all the chemicals, the serotonin, that makes you feel good,” Katelyn said.
Like many people who use the drug on a frequent basis, Swain isn’t entirely sure how MDMA actually works nor is he aware of its effects.
“I don’t think anyone who I’ve done MDMA with has ever known what it means. But I think that the scientific name makes it seem more pure [than ecstasy],” he said.
But Kish said it makes no scientific sense that MDMA and ecstasy are different.
By using hair sample analysis, Kish researches MDMA users and the effects the drug has on the brain.
His studies have found that most MDMA users in the Toronto area don’t realize they’re regularly taking meth because it’s been mixed into their MDMA pill or powder.
“You can find anything in an ecstasy tablet. You can find filler, you can find cocaine, you can find methamphetamine,” he said.
While scientists are not yet positive whether MDMA kills brain cells, they know that it affects serotonin, and that when combined with meth, causes a slight thinning of the cerebral cortex, the exterior layer of the brain.
“The reputation that MDMA has and the circumstance in which it’s used bring the appearance that there’s less harm involved. That brings us back to the argument that you don’t know exactly what you’re getting. That’s the big risk with MDMA,” said Staff Sergeant John Babiar of the Toronto Police.
“It’s produced in a [drug lab] and unlike pharmaceuticals, there’s no control.”
The police have their evidence analyzed by Health Canada. Babiar said about half of the pills tested are found to contain other substances. Meth, PCP, MDA, and Ketamine are among some of the drugs that have been found in the analyzed samples.
“Regardless of your thoughts on the risks of MDMA, there’s no guarantee that [MDMA] is what you’re actually getting.”
Babiar said that in the past year he has seen a dramatic rise of MDMA in drug culture. There was a spike in 1999, and Toronto police have continued to see more MDMA related arrests since then.
Increased body temperature and increased blood pressure, two physical effects of taking MDMA, can cause overheating, which can lead to hyperthermic death.
Though death from taking MDMA is rare, scientists have yet to understand why some people die from it while others are completely fine.
MDMA appears to be safer than other drugs. Based on a UK study published in the Lancet, the world’s oldest medical journal, earlier this month, ecstasy was ranked 16 out of 20 on a list of drugs based on harm to the user and harm to others. Alcohol came first, followed by heroin and crack cocaine. With most of its harm being physical and nearly all harm affecting the individual using, MDMA shows little risk when compared to other drugs.
“It doesn’t mean it’s safe, but it does seem to be less harmful than other drugs,” said Kish.
“It can’t be safe if ingesting a tablet or two can cause death. It’s rare, but it can cause death.”
Kish says MDMA is not an addictive drug but that like many other drugs, MDMA users will develop a tolerance to it — although the scientific community isn’t exactly sure how.
A tolerance shows that something in the brain has changed. Not necessarily brain damage, said Kish, but something has changed.
What Kish does know is that there is still much to learn about MDMA and its effects on the brain and body.
“You will suffer from a loss of serotonin in your brain. But I can’t tell you what the consequence of that will be,” said Kish. “[MDMA] is still, in my opinion, an area of uncertainty.”
Dr. Jürgen Rehm, a senior scientist and co-section head of public health and regulatory policy section at CAMH, agrees that while MDMA has a low risk factor when compared to other drugs, it is not without risk.
He said MDMA kills fewer people than alcohol, possibly because fewer people use it.
“If as many people trying alcohol had tried ecstasy, ecstasy would be much higher on that [Lancet] list.”
Rehm also said that while other drugs have high risks in a few specific areas, MDMA holds a lot of risks that are simply rare or yet to be proven.
He said regardless of the happy effects and lack of harm to others, the risk profile of MDMA is bad enough to justify its prohibition.
That’s enough for Katelyn to consider quitting MDMA altogether.
“I’m really conscious now of the after effects. I get really nervous that it’s taking huge chunks out of my brain, and I don’t know how much I want to play with my brain anymore,” she said.