Why you should care
Because you might be self-medicating without even realizing it.
Jessica Williams had never done molly, but a guy friend offered it to her at a house party. She’s not one to say no to new experiences, so she took the pill and swallowed it. A couple of hours later, after some flirting and back-and-forth, all she wanted to do was talk and get to know Ryan Callen, deeply. They ditched the party and spent the next several hours sitting on his bed, face-to-face and cross-legged, talking about their fears, ambitions and most closely guarded secrets. “Everything just seemed so real, like we were both saying exactly what we were feeling,” she says. Yes, there was physical chemistry, but it was the emotional intimacy that surprised them both. He asked her then and there to be with him, to date exclusively. She said yes.
The next day she woke up worried it was just “molly love.” The thought of dating him hadn’t ever crossed her mind. “It sounds so wild, but I honestly don’t think I would have been with him if it wasn’t for that night of MDMA,” she says.
MDMA isn’t new, and neither is research into its effects on human connection, but it wasn’t until the very early 2000s that the FDA warmed to the idea of new research into the potential legal uses of MDMA. It remains banned as a Schedule 1 drug — these range from marijuana to heroin— but under the law could be used in FDA-approved research settings. Psychedelics are now considered by some to be a legitimate cure for trauma, and it’s “highly unlikely” that there will be any turning back, argues Brad Burge, the communications director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), the organization running the nationwide studies. Publicly available psychedelic-assisted therapy is on the horizon.
Meantime, MDMA is making other kinds of strides. Having been popularized for its use in partying and treating PTSD, it’s finding love with a new crowd — PR people, finance guys, social-media managers — people who aren’t trying to fix anything or get fucked up. Rather, they’re seeking an experience with something less sensational but perhaps ultimately more exciting: intimacy.
The intimacy in question, and in demand, is not just the sexual kind. Christina Miller, a 23-year-old Harvard graduate who’s applying to med school, got into one of those fights with a friend that left them both angry and silent. That is, until that friend showed up to a gathering rolling hard on MDMA. All of the issues were forgotten, says Miller, thanks to that extra dose of artificial love. The resolution lasted. “If she didn’t do molly that night, we might not have been friends,” says Miller. People also use it to find a truer sense of their own selves. “Ecstasy can really open your heart,” says former porn star and sex worker advocate Annie Sprinkle, adding that it can also remind you how to feel good when you’ve forgotten. When she was 32 and living in Manhattan, she was going through a dark patch and started doing MDMA alone, as a kind of therapy. She would sit in front of the mirror and hiss “like a Medusa,” combining it with masturbation and “deep profound sexual release.” She was letting go of her self-doubt. At the end, she says, it was the first time she truly ever loved herself.
Here’s how it works. MDMA puts memories in the right “filing cabinet” so they don’t rule your present life, Alison McQueen says, one of just a handful of psychedelic therapists in the U.S. For Ashley Jenkins, a 57-year-old sexual assault victim who’s suffered decades of PTSD, it allowed her to revisit painful experiences without reliving them. For the intimacy seekers, biologically, it increases the output of the feel-good signal senders in the brain like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, making you feel happier, more open and more touchy-feely. Megan Stubbs, a sexologist living in New York, says we live in this “hypersexualized” culture but that “there’s a disconnect trying to bring [sex] into daily life.” She argues that MDMA could bridge that gap for millennial women in particular. After all, 2.5 of the 2.6 million MDMA users in the U.S. are between 14 and 34, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. And the moment may be ripe, especially with feminism’s enduring pop-culture rise, with mainstream celebs and politicians using the word once saved for more leftist circles. It’s all about the touchy-feelies and openness, after all, generally considered “feminine” traits. One government study showed that teenage girls are more likely than boys to have tried the drug. On the flipside, crediting drugs with making people more sexual has its dangers. “It has to be a holistic view,” Stubbs says.
Yes, this new era of MDMA use has its roots in what our conservative readers might call hippie bullshit.
When Stubbs says there are “mostly benefits” of MDMA for sex, since it makes people feel more intimate and more open to positive experiences, she cites “Intimate Insight,” a 2015 Journal of Psychopharmacology study that shows MDMA changes the way people talk about and to their significant others. Matthew Baggott, the lead researcher from the University of Chicago, and his co-researchers from Columbia University and the University of Southern California found that MDMA caused them to be more comfortable in their own skin and increased emotional connection.
If you’ve been waiting for us to bring up the guys in the Volkswagen vans and Yoko Ono T-shirts, your wait is over. Yes, this all has its roots in what our conservative readers might call hippie bullshit. Alexander Shulgin, the medical chemist and psychopharmacologist known as the godfather of ecstasy, had a special group of friends-slash-research-subjects, a close-knit crew of academics, business leaders and hippies. He would invite couples over to dinner to test new psychedelic compounds he concocted in his dirt-floor garden shed in California’s Berkeley Hills. The six-foot-four scientist would bring out a new potion, and after warning his guests of its possible effects, they would embark on a psychedelic voyage.
These dinner parties were some of the earlier tests in MDMA-related couples therapy. Shulgin synthesized an easy-made version of MDMA in 1976, a drug originally patented by German pharmaceutical company Merck in 1912 but quickly abandoned. He asked his friend and LSD creator Albert Hofmann what he thought of the new love potion. Hofmann responded, “Finally, something I can do with my wife.” A couple of years later, drawing on his dinner-party experiments, he published a paper calling MDMA “an easily controlled altered state of consciousness with emotional and sensual overtones.” Others caught on, like his psychologist friend Leo Zeff, a so-called underground therapist who used the chemical with thousands of patients, secretly. Shulgin’s drug-as-couples-therapy idea caught on and by the early 1980s, around 1,000 therapists were doing intensive MDMA therapy sessions, like Dr. George Greer, Zeff’s protégé, who tested the substance on 80 patients. He became the go-to guy on research and found that when they gave it to a couple together, their “intimate conversation” improved. And the effects lasted for months. Greer says it works this way: It blocks the neuropsychological fear response to a perceived emotional threat, so people aren’t afraid to say things. In general, they were “less defensive” when talking about relationship trouble.
A couple of high-profile deaths got the attention of the DEA and they banned it.
But love-inducing MDMA also helps some people get laid. And by the mid-1980s a quick and dirty version made it onto the Dallas club scene. Which might have brought us to the present-day experimentations with intimacy … except for the things that started going wrong. A couple of high-profile deaths got the attention of the DEA and they banned it. Practically overnight. Government money for research vanished. And this all happened against the backdrop of the booming crack epidemic and then–First Lady Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign. Ecstasy and intimacy receded into the shadows.
Their fears weren’t unfounded. The molly sold on the street can be adulterated, and even in its purest form, MDMA has risks. The National Institutes of Health notes it’s not a benign drug — adverse effects range from chills and hypertension to heart or kidney failure. MDMA-induced hyperthermia can be fatal. And for those with cardiac issues, MDMA is particularly dangerous.
And no one is saying that the resurgence is a recipe for happiness ever after. Or that MDMA is a silver bullet against ugly divorce rates. Drugs and relationships don’t always mix. Like the scene in season five of Mad Men in which Roger and Jane, two of the main characters, are lying on a furry rug at home, tripping on LSD. Their blissed-out state gives them calm clarity about their marriage … that it’s over. That’s part of the deal with psychedelics. They’re “mind manifesting,” the literal meaning of the word, and becoming aware of your inner thoughts can be brutal. Couples therapy is hard enough without the influence of drugs, says Constance Avery-Clark, a seasoned sex therapist and member of the Society for Sex Therapy and Research, adding that therapists “can’t compete” with drugs. She’s hesitant about any upside.
But imagine walking down the street in any city and having access to psychotherapy clinics — cozy rooms with Persian rugs, calming music, green plants and trained therapists — where people can check in, stay the night and go home the next day, healed. Eventually these in-patient centers would treat all sorts of people, from bickering couples to Boomers who want to have freer sex. Burge thinks this will happen “within the next decade,” if not sooner. Meanwhile, the adventurous experiment in private, sometimes with life-changing results. “When you take MDMA, it completely fast-forwards, times a thousand, intimacy and relationships, and without that I wouldn’t be with who I am today. I’d look at him as just a friend,” says Williams. And today, she couldn’t be happier.