The truth about MDMA

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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.

The drug

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 high

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 hangover

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.

The myths

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.

The dangers

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.


  1. maybe titling an article “you say party we say die” when it contains the following is a little, ok a LOT, sensationalist:

    -“MDMA holds a lot of risks that are simply rare or yet to be proven”
    -“..MDMA is not an addictive drug”
    -““[MDMA] is still, in my opinion, an area of uncertainty.””
    -“…it does seem to be less harmful than other drugs,” said Kish.”
    -“Though death from taking MDMA is rare”
    -“…scientists are not yet positive whether MDMA kills brain cells”

    this is also incredibly false.
    “…the effects of MDMA include mild euphoria.”

    how about a profile on someone who has had a life altering experience on the drug? if “jake swain” is actually a real person, you surely would have had him describe a positive trip in the name of journalistic integrity.

    yet another negative drug story. good to know you’re already falling in line with major media’s unwavering scare-mongering and you’re not even graduated yet.

  2. I am the scientist who was quoted in the article on ecstasy and would like to correct or qualify a few of the quotes:

    The article refers to my belief that ecstasy users will suffer damage to their “serotonin.” What we actually found in a brain imaging study was that ecstasy users who use the drug about twice a month suffer a loss of the serotonin transporter in the brain. The serotonin transporter is a protein component of nerves that use serotonin as a neurotransmitter and which is necessary for ecstasy to cause its behavioural effects.

    Because ecstasy needs the serotonin transporter to produce its effects, I suggest that the effects of ecstasy diminish with repeated use (tolerance) because of the loss of the serotonin transporter.

    The low serotonin transporter level is consistent with (but does not prove) a loss of serotonin nerves in brain (i.e., brain damage).

    I am also quoted as saying that ecstasy is not an addictive drug. This is not correct. Some ecstasy users can become addicted to ecstasy. However, this was very rarely observed in our study of moderate drug users.

    Finally, a reader complains that the article lacks balance and credibility by focusing only on the negative aspects of ecstasy. Here, the journalist could have briefly mentioned, for balance, the fact that ecstasy is now being tested, in a carefully supervised clinical study, for treatment of a psychiatric condition.

    Stephen Kish

  3. “You’re depleting your brain of all the chemicals, the serotonin, that makes you feel good,” Mudry said.

    It is dopamine that makes you feel good. Serotonin is released to induce sleep.

    Shows how educated the research sample was.

  4. Most mdam these days Is not real. A lot are derivatives of methamphetamines (methylone)and will burn up your dopamine receptors and keep you up for days. It’s hard to say what everyone one is taking. Ecstasy is not a dirty form of mdma, if it come from over seas. The drugs are more regulated their chemist are professionals. Any one who thinks ecstay pills are cut or not prue have been taking meth or some type of derivative of the chemical or have gotten pills from someone who makes them with those other chemical compounds. Test your stuff!

  5. I want to take mdma, but it can be dangerous, in my city a girl died because of taķing bad mdma…it can have deadly stuff in it.

  6. This journalist is one sided, and if he logically included the points he’s listing you could more clearly see he is spewing bullshit, this is a case and point example of how critical reading can help you more easily identify people like this, he uses a one sided argument and his only point is basically saying these people that use it heavily are less happy, well no shit. And he again is talking about bad mdma not the real deal but then contradicts himself by saying that it’s bad, how? If you can actually die even on rare occasion from real mdma in abnormal dose while being hydrated then that is scary and I’d like to know more about that. You are stupid bro you over generalize and don’t actually discuss, and by stupid I mean you are very one sided and this sort of writing enrages me. Sorry for the rant but please practice critical reading becuase if shit like this.

  7. This is literally the most bullshit article I’ve read about MDMA. First of all, methamphetamine (meth) and methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) are completely different drugs. Think of water (H20) and hydroxide (HO); sure they look similar chemically, but that additional hydrogen molecule makes for a HUGE difference in the chemicals. The same goes for MDMA and meth. Secondly, the story about the keys jumping back and forth? Yeah, that doesn’t happen. The only visual you will get are the lights are much brighter and prettier, nothing is moving. Also, pure MDMA should cost more than $10; if it’s $10, it’s probably cut with something (like bath salts) and that is what makes the drug dangerous. To ensure safety, you just need to buy a testing kit to ensure the purity of the substance. Additionally, rolling twice a month is definitely not moderate. You need to wait at least 3 months in between rolls to give your brain sufficient time to replenish its natural supply of serotonin. So the part about MDMA causing depression, well if the user takes it every 2 weeks of course it will cause depression? However, taking it TRUELY moderately (every 3 months), will not cause depression because the brain has adequate time to replenish serotonin (one of the neurotransmitters in our brains that makes us happy and is affected by the consumption of MDMA). I could go on with other misleading/wrong information in this article, but I will stop here.
    Main take away: MDMA is one of the lesser dangerous recreational drugs, just make sure to test the substance to ensure purity. Also, get an adequate amount of sleep and drink plenty of water the day you’re planning on taking MDMA so you’re body is ready for the drug (properly hydrated and rested). Lastly, if you take the drug in moderation (3 months or longer between rolls), you will be fine. Just be conservative with the use and don’t go overboard, that is when problems can start to arise.

  8. First if all, I live in the UK and I have, in the past 4-5 months taken MDMA at least 50 times. All this rubbish I see about the average/recommended dose being about 100mg is stupid man haha I’ve done over 2 grams in one sitting numerous times. All you soft pansies clearly can’t take it. You all think MDMA is some exciting and fun drug but it ain’t I’d it? It’s absolutely disgusting and I’d rather eat my dogs poo than take it again. Anyone who wants to try it, don’t because it’s not worth it. Do you really want to be depressed all your life and not know what to do? No I’m pretty sure you don’t so what’s the point in even touching the stuff. Trust me I know.

  9. When I started using MDMA I knew nothing about the dosing standards. At first I’d just pop a pill or two when it was given to me by friends who were doing it. Then after a break up I started hanging out with this girl who sold. One night she sold me “double stacks” I dropped one didn’t wait long enough for it to kick in and dropped another. They hit me all at once and remember thinking there’s no way this isn’t damaging to my brain. I told my friends I thought I had taken way too much and that it was going to mess me up. They assured me that it’s pure MDMA so I’m fine. They said the quantity doesn’t matter it just releases more Seratonin in your brain which just gets replenished. I beloved them. Partially because I wanted to. I went on to take two more that night and taking 4 pills per session became the norm for me. In 2014 we went to a Dinah shore weekend thing. This time she had triple stacks. The were brown crystal shards this time as opposed to the white powder I was usually given. Having no idea what triple stack meant I bought 8, 4 for each night. That night I started taking them and they wouldn’t kick in so I just took more and more until I was out. I never felt any of the positive effects just got really hot, my muscles were locked up and I could barely move, I wanted to go to the hospital but could find my friends and was too embarrassed to admit that I was feeling so badly. We eventually got back to hotel room and I remember thinking the girl must have laced the pills she gave me to try to kill me or something. I also realized that these thoughts were absurd and started getting afraid that I was losing my mind and becoming a crazy person. I had my first panick attack that next day. Or that’s what my friends said was happening anyway. Everything looked completely different and I could note walk right due to muscle tension so I kept having these thought that everyone around me must think I’m some tweaker. My life was never the same again after that experience. My emotions are gone, my ability to fall in love gone, my sense of well-being gone, my motivation to travel, have children, go on vacations all gone. I don’t feel the same about my family anymore. I beat myself up everyday for not researching this stuff myself instead of trusting my friends. I didn’t even know that my lack of emotions and happiness were caused by this drug until I recently started trying to figure out why I can’t feel things anymore like normal people. I’m a 5ft tall 110 lb female and I took over 2g in one night plus was taking .8 on a regular before then. There nothing I can do now to go back and undo what I’ve done to myself. I feel so trapped. I search the internet off and on trying to look for things that could possibly help reverse the damage but I have had no luck yet. I’ve also tried looking for someone who can do a scan of my brain for SERT transporters or seratonin axons but it seems the only people whom can get that service or the people who were lucky enough to be involved in a study. I feel like giving up everyday. I go through each day hoping I feel better the next. If anyone has any information that could help please reach out.

    1. Hi Haley,

      My experience is similar to yours in that I took this to much and for to long. I don’t feel completely lost but I am not right in myself and it has been many years since using. I wish I never used this awful drug.

      I would love to hear how you are doing now and how long it has been since all this happened?

      Hope your well.

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