How MDMA is being used to treat PTSD | The Economist


I loaded a Beretta nine millimeter. I put it to my temple and
I pulled the trigger and the greatest peace that I
felt was when that hammer fell because I knew it was gonna be over. It was only a microsecond
but when you spend day in and day out suffering, a microsecond
of peace is an eternity. Since I’m sitting here you obviously know that the gun didn’t go off. That happened twice. Different ammunition. I tried to overdose once and twice I tried to slit my wrists. In America, around 22 military veterans kill
themselves every day. John served in Iraq during
the second Gulf War. His experiences left him with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. The mental suffering has been so great that he was suicidal for eight years. One of the things we never
realized was that a lot of us would be asked to
give our life for our country, not in Iraq, not
in Afghanistan but far, far from the battlefield
at home, alone in the dark. Combat takes an emotional toll. Not only the things you see,
not only the things you do. But the base I was on got mortared thousands of times in a year. There’s guys on my base
that never went outside the wire, that are suffering
from extreme PTSD just from the constant fear of raining bombs. An estimated eight million Americans suffer with
PTSD and war veterans are only a fraction of this number. It’s a public health disaster costing billions of dollars to treat. There are treatments
available but the drugs prescribed are only
successful in 20% of cases. For those who don’t
respond to the available treatment, there may be
an alternative, MDMA, the active ingredient in
the party drug ecstasy is being touted as a
miracle cure for PTSD. The FDA has labeled MDMA
a breakthrough treatment and tests of the drug show
that it’s highly effective. In a recent study, over 60%
of patients no longer met the clinical criteria for
PTSD after the MDMA treatment. For John, conventional
treatments hadn’t worked. He saw the trial as his last hope. I’d never taken any psychedelics,
I’d never taken MDMA. I kind of thought it was
gonna be like The Matrix where instantly things
were gonna get magical. Is it like gradual rise and gradual fall? Hopefully, it’s waves where
you start to notice something. Sometimes people report a lot of thoughts. And then it kicked in
after about 30, 40 minutes. No anxiety. Geometric patterns. And I remember thinking
to myself, I completely get why people take this now. For John, the treatment was a revelation. It was probably the greatest
therapeutic experience I have ever had in my entire life. What are you experiencing? It disconnects the
amygdala, that fear response in the brain, that fight
or flight and you can talk about the trauma without
having a panic attack. Thinking a lot about. In Iraq? He lost his leg. Part of him getting hurt was my fault. The MDMA puts the brain in a
place where the therapy can work and people always ask
describe it, describe it. The best description I
have come up with is, it’s like doing therapy while
being hugged by everyone who loves you in a bathtub full
of puppies licking your face. MDMA was used in psychotherapy in the 1970s but became
popular as a party drug in the 1980s and was made illegal. It wasn’t until the early
2000s that the drug began scientific testing in
America to treat PTSD. Testing is now at the
final stage of FDA approval where around 300 subjects
will participate. If this is successful, then the drug could become a medicine. Rick Doblin has been at the forefront of this research since the 1980s. And one of the veterans that was in our study was John Lubecky. He served 12 years. We give MDMA only three
times, one month apart, with 12 90 minute non-drug
psychotherapy sessions and each of the sessions last eight hours. The current treatments for
PTSD flattened out people’s emotions and they are requiring
people to take these drugs every day for months or years
or a lifetime basically. An estimated 20% of former military personnel suffer with
PTSD in America alone. The Department of Veteran’s Affairs spends about $400 million
annually on treating PTSD and other mental health conditions. When you take MDMA, it floods the brain with hormones and
neurotransmitters that evoke feelings of trust and wellbeing. Researchers say this allows patients to reexamine traumatic memories. Of all the bad shit in Iraq, the worst thing was coming home. Like any drug, MDMA has side effects and there’s a
moderate risk of addiction but it is less harmful
than alcohol or tobacco. A small nonprofit is funding
the trial as MDMA is not patentable so big pharmaceutical
companies have steered clear of the treatment as
it will not make them money. For sufferers of PTSD, this new treatment could be a lifesaver. If hadn’t have gone through this, I’d be in Arlington cemetery. I have a stepson and if it
weren’t for this treatment, he probably would have been
handed the flag off my casket and somebody would have
had to explain to him why. Especially knowing that
treatments are available. They made it so that my stepson
will get the flag off my casket when he’s old and gray
and I’m old and gray and after I’ve watched him fall in love
and graduate high school, college, get married, bounce
a grandchild on my knee. Those are the things that
this treatment provides for veterans and everyone rather
than a life cut short.