Ecstasy, or 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), is both a stimulant and a psychedelic drug synthesized in illicit laboratories and distributed in colorful tablets, capsules, pills, or in powder or liquid form. The drug is usually swallowed, but may also be snorted or smoked on occasion.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) considers MDMA an illegal drug, classifying it as a Schedule I controlled substance within the United States. Since it has no accepted medicinal use in America, and it is manufactured in clandestine laboratories and sold on the street and at raves, clubs, and parties, individuals may never be exactly sure what is contained in the dose they are taking. MDMA may be “cut” with other drugs or products that can have undesirable side effects or unintended interactions in the body.
Ecstasy increases levels of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine in the brain, increasing pleasure as well as elevating heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and energy levels. Sense of touch, emotional closeness, and sexual libido are enhanced, and sensory perceptions, including those involving time and space, are altered with the presence of MDMA. Often classified as a “club drug,” ecstasy also goes by the following street names:
- ADAM or Adam
- Lover’s speed
- Hug drug
- Candy canes
- Disco biscuit
- Love drug
- M & M
- White doves
Molly is another form of MDMA to hit the streets, and it is often touted as “pure” form of MDMA, although this is not the case. It is more often a mix of several chemicals and toxins. Of the Molly seized by the DEA in New York in the past several years, only 13 percent actually contained MDMA, CNN reports. Molly is attracting young and potentially first-time drug users, as Psychology Today publishes that individuals between the ages of 16 and 24 typically use this drug. Statistics on Molly versus ecstasy are difficult to quantify and often both are classified under MDMA use.
Over 600,000 people in the United States (who were at least 12 years old) reported using ecstasy in the month leading up to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) in 2014. Ever popular in the young adult and adolescent crowd, the majority of individuals abusing ecstasy in 2014 were between the ages of 18 and 25. Often taken at raves, or all-night dance parties, and often in combination with other drugs like marijuana, LSD, (in a practice called “candy flipping”) or alcohol, the Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey of 2015 published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that nearly 6 percent of high school seniors admitted to using MDMA at some point in their lifetime.
Overdose and Short-Term Side Effects of Ecstasy
Since a person can never be sure exactly what chemicals are in the dose of ecstasy they are taking, or what the potency level is, the risks for overdose and other unintended side effects are very high. In 2011, over 20,000 people sought emergency medical treatment in an emergency department (ED) for a negative reaction to MDMA, the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) reports. An overdose on MDMA often leads to a dangerous spike in body temperature, and individuals may overheat as well as become severely dehydrated. Panic attacks and seizures may also accompany an overdose. Hyperthermia due to overdose may cause cardiovascular collapse, kidney, or liver failure, which can be fatal. Mixing ecstasy with other drugs, “piggy-backing” (taking multiple doses in a series over a period of time), or “stacking” it (taking three or more tablets at once) also increases overdose risk.
Other short-term side effects of MDMA may include:
- Teeth clenching
- Muscle tension
- Blurred vision
- Irregular heart rate
- Mental confusion
- Difficulty concentrating
- Impaired motor coordination
- Need for stimulation and to be touched
- Sexual arousal
- Sleep issues
- Decreased appetite
Ecstasy usually takes effect within a half-hour or so of taking it and remains active in the bloodstream for about 2-3 hours, the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) reports. Most side effects wear off in about 24 hours or so; however, some may linger for up to a week or longer. Cognitive and memory impairment, sadness, loss of interest in sexual activity, suppressed appetite, anxiety, and problems sleeping are potential effects that may linger.
Since ecstasy acts on parts of the brain responsible for helping to regulate moods, control impulses, and involved in feelings of empathy and emotional closeness, individuals taking ecstasy may make questionable decisions especially regarding sexual encounters. The risk for contracting a sexually transmitted disease (STD), hepatitis, or HIV/AIDS is then raised with MDMA abuse as well.
Addiction and Additional Health Risks of Ecstasy Abuse
When MDMA is abused on a regular basis, some of the effects on cognition and memory may become more pronounced. A reduction in pleasure and interest in sex as well as heightened anxiety levels, depression, irritability, impulsive behaviors, sleep disturbances, aggression, and a reduced appetite are all possible side effects of chronic MDMA abuse, NIDA reports. MDMA also may damage the neurons in the brain responsible for producing serotonin and can cause levels of this important neurotransmitter to dip very low, resulting in depressed moods and sleep issues. Visual and verbal memory may also be impaired on a long-term basis with chronic MDMA abuse, NIDA warns, although it is unclear whether or not this is due to the MDMA itself or additional drugs abused in tandem with ecstasy.
Ecstasy abuse may also create drug dependence when it is perpetuated over a period of time, leading to changes in the brain that makes it difficult for individuals to feel pleasure without the drug. Drug cravings, restlessness, insomnia, fatigue, muscle aches, irritability, depression, anxiety, and appetite fluctuations may be symptoms of MDMA withdrawal.
When someone is unable to control the amount of ecstasy they take and how often they take it, they may suffer from an addiction involving MDMA. Increased risk-taking behaviors and taking MDMA in situations that may potentially be dangerous, as well as continuing to abuse the drug regardless of any negative consequences, are signs of a possible addiction involving MDMA.
Help for Ecstasy Abuse
There are currently no pharmacological treatments for MDMA dependence; however, a medical detox program may use prescription medications and/or supplements to manage withdrawal side effects. Medical detox provides around-the-clock mental health and medical support and supervision, helping to ensure the safety and stability of the individual while the drugs process out of the body. Detox helps a person to become physically stable so they can then address the emotional and behavioral aspects of drug abuse and addiction.
Behavioral therapies and interventions are useful during drug abuse treatment programs, as they can help individuals to learn healthier stress coping mechanisms and how to handle potential life stressors or triggers. Life skills training and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) sessions also help to work through a person’s thought processes and modify them when necessary to encourage more positive and productive behaviors. Clients can also benefit from peer support groups that are often formed in treatment and carry over into recovery to sustain abstinence and sobriety in the long run.
As a dangerous substance with no approved medical uses in the United States, MDMA is an unpredictable drug that can have hazardous and long-ranging consequences when used in any amount. If ecstasy is being regularly abused or an addiction is present, seek help before long-term effects take hold.