Ecstasy as Treatment: An Experiment Isn’t Enough

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

ecstasyReading CNN’s fascinating piece on the experimental use of Ecstasy to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), I was both inspired and concerned. While it’s fantastic that scientists are looking at different ways to help those suffering from PTSD, those new treatment options shouldn’t come at the expense of the patient’s health. To use an addictive substance in treatment is to tread on dangerous ground; these PTSD sufferers already have a significant problem—why risk adding addiction to the mix? This is a particularly precarious move given that 52 percent of PTSD sufferers already struggle with alcohol abuse, and 35 percent with another drug addiction.

There’s a heated national controversy about whether or not the benefits of medical marijuana outweigh its risks, and Ecstasy is even more addictive than marijuana (not to mention more addictive than heroin)—43 percent of Ecstasy users become addicted, compared to 23 percent of heroin users and nine percent of marijuana users. Plus, Ecstasy has been shown to cause severe anxiety, depression, nausea, increased heart rate and blood pressure, sleep problems, and even death due to liver, kidney, or cardiovascular system failure.

We’ve seen veterans, for example, get hooked on the painkillers they were given to treat their physical injuries; it follows that many (43 percent, in all likelihood) would become addicted to the Ecstasy that was used to treat their PTSD. Addictive medications tend to replace one problem with another, which is why “solving” PTSD with an addictive substance is an inherently flawed concept. We need to be careful not to turn one mental disorder (PTSD) into another (addiction).

Then there’s the potential to isolate a drug’s helpful ingredient(s). Look at medical marijuana; while it often helps alleviate chronic symptoms, its key ingredients are also available in less dangerous forms within other medications. Ecstasy, if proven helpful, should follow a similar path, with doctors determining which ingredients help treat PTSD and whether they can be delivered in controlled dosages in a safer formula.

Of course, not everyone who tries Ecstasy – or marijuana, or cocaine, or heroin, for that matter – will become addicted. Hope, the patient profiled on CNN, clearly has not succumbed to addiction; she is the ideal candidate, a teetotaler who only used Ecstasy within the controlled treatment setting of the experiment. But although Hope may not be addicted to Ecstasy now, what if she begins experiencing her PTSD symptoms again in the next few months, or years? Won’t she return to the drug that first eased her symptoms? And if that pattern of returning to drug use continues to recur over the years…well, that would look like an addiction to me.

Supporters will argue that this Ecstasy experiment is providing positive results so far, and it’s true that Hope’s case study certainly shows promise. This is great news, but unfortunately an experiment isn’t enough; a treatment method needs research-proven endorsement from the medical community. Since Dr. Mithoefer’s experiment is still “case unproven,” the best we can do is to wait and see. If the experiment’s outcomes turn out to be positive, then scientists and physicians should move to the next step: trying to break down the drug’s ingredients to deliver relief in a less-addictive manner. We shouldn’t simply settle for a potentially addictive “solution” to trauma; instead, we must find a way to help people become PTSD-free without jeopardizing their ability to remain addiction-free as well.

Howard P. Meitiner
President and CEO
Phoenix House

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