MDMA is a synthetic drug that affects the brain similarly to other stimulants. Although the chemical name for MDMA is 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine, it's usually referred to as MDMA, Ecstasy, Molly or XTC—all of which are different names for the same drug.
Created in the early 1900s, MDMA was initially intended to be a pharmaceutical compound. Shortly after its creation, though, the drug's hallucinogenic properties became known, which halted its production. The popularity of MDMA later skyrocketed during the 1960s and has remained popular today. In fact, MDMA was legal in the United States until 1985, which gave the drug a long, legal pathway for recreational drug abuse.
MDMA, also referred to as Ecstasy and Molly, is now classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance by the Drug Enforcement Administration. And although the drug is associated with feelings of energy, pleasure, connection, warmth and altered perceptions of time and senses, Ecstasy can have terrible, long-lasting effects on the brain and body.
MDMA is often used as a party drug, making it most popular among—but not limited to—young adults who attend music festivals, concerts, clubs and other large gatherings. The most common method of using MDMA or Ecstasy is in capsule and pill forms, but the drug is also available in liquid and powder forms. As with many mood-altering substances, MDMA is often unknowingly laced with other drugs, including:
The unknown mixture or composition of MDMA presents a dangerous variable for anyone using the drug.
Recently approved clinical trials are being conducted to explore MDMA-assisted treatment for depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Results so far have demonstrated that, when combined with psychotherapy and administered in low doses within a controlled environment, MDMA is indeed capable of reducing some of the chronic symptoms associated with depression, anxiety and PTSD.
Despite the promising results, it's important to note the stark differences between research studies and recreational drug use: a research study is highly monitored by medical professionals, only a small dose of MDMA or Ecstasy is administered, and the safety of its participants is always protected. Recreational users of MDMA or Ecstasy, on the other hand, have no safety measures in place and often take high doses in the pursuit of intoxication.
Like other mood-altering substances, MDMA affects the brain's reward center by activating dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin—the neurotransmitters responsible for feelings of reward, pleasure, stress, motivation and more. Ecstasy also mimics the effects of other stimulants, and thereby impacts the brain and body functions related to energy, mood, emotions and sleep. Because of its stimulating effects on the body and mind, many users of MDMA also report extreme anxiety, panic attacks or aggression after taking the drug.
As a stimulant, MDMA will directly affect a person's heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature. But there are other lesser-known, sometimes long-term side effects to the drug, including:
In some cases, Ecstasy can even cause death because of the body's decreased ability to regulate temperature.
Like other mind-altering substances, Ecstasy can prove dangerous for three reasons: the unknown chemical makeup of the drug, the physical side effects on the body and the peripheral side effects on behavior. For example, people who are intoxicated from Ecstasy will often partake in unsafe sexual activities, and users of the drug have demonstrated an increased risk of contracting HIV or AIDS, hepatitis and other sexually transmitted diseases.
So yes, Ecstasy is dangerous, both to short and long-term physical and mental health.
In addition to any long-term effects on the body and brain, the short-term withdrawal symptoms are debilitating and can last from three to six days. The withdrawal symptoms for Ecstasy include:
The literature, reports and research outcomes vary in their conclusions regarding whether Ecstasy addiction is possible, making the topic contested and somewhat controversial. Anecdotally, some people have reported an addiction and dependence on the drug, while others report an easy discontinuation of use. Some research indicates a lower likelihood of developing an addiction when compared with other drugs, while other research suggests that the continued use of MDMA certainly poses a risk for developing a physical or psychological dependence on the drug.
Another complicating factor is the concurrent use of other mind-altering substances. Because many people who use Ecstasy do so alongside marijuana, alcohol and other drugs, they risk developing multiple substance use disorders. If a person notices themselves experiencing increased tolerance—where they need to take more of the drug to achieve the desired effect—or withdrawal symptoms, they should consider speaking with a trained professional to determine whether addiction or dependence issues have arisen.
As with any addiction to substances or behaviors, recovery from MDMA or Ecstasy addiction is possible. Most people find recovery through some type of formal addiction treatment and mental health programming, which are available in either residential or outpatient settings. You can also find help through peer-driven recovery support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.
If you or a loved one are concerned about someone's use of Ecstasy and believe it might be drug abuse, please reach out to Hazelden Betty Ford for answers and help at 1-866-831-5700. You don't need to manage the situation alone. Substance use disorders of all varieties are common and treatable, and there is no shame in needing help with addiction. We're here for you.