Ecstasy Brief Outline

Chemist Lab

Since Ecstasy is a fairly new drug, it has a short but remarkable history. The correct name of the drug is +/-3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA). Chemically, it is a stimulant, but in action, it is a hallucinogen.

It was originally developed at Merck in Germany in 1912 but the researchers did not realize that the drug was psychoactive. They thought the drug might have applications for reducing bleeding or weight loss so they patented it and forgot it.

It wasn’t until research chemist Alexander Shulgin synthesized it in 1965 and documented the method of synthesis that its uses, both illicit and legitimate, began to develop. Several years later, Merrie Kleinman, a graduate student who was advised by Shulgin at San Francisco State University, discovered its psychoactive effects and told Shulgin.

He made a batch and began to test it on himself at a variety of dosages, taking careful notes of each experience. For example, at 60 milligrams of MDMA, he reported “At the one hour point, I am quite certain that I could not drive, time is slowing down a bit, but I am mentally very active. My pupils are considerably dilated.”

Shulgin had a group of eight friends plus himself and his wife that he tested his experimental psychoactive drugs on. Over the many years he was involved in this research, he estimated that he had tried these drugs on himself more than 4,000 times.

Ecstasy Use Branches Out

Ecstasy Users

In 1977, Shulgin presented the drug to an associate, Leo Zeff, a PhD who had a psychotherapy practice. Zeff began to use the drug on his patients as a therapeutic aid. It was not, at this point, an illegal substance. He passed the drug on to his colleagues and by 1980, there were more than a thousand therapists using the drug in their practices.

In 1978, Shulgin published a paper that documented its effects. And in 1991, he and his wife published the book PIHKAL, or Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved. (MDMA is in a class of drug called phenethylamines.) By doing so, he cemented his association with this drug. He has since been called the “father” and “godfather” of Ecstasy.

In the mid-1980s, the media picked up on this drug and began to feature it, including the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper, Newsweek and Harper’s Bazaar. A Los Angeles distributor who wanted to make the drug more appealing is said to have given it the name Ecstasy. And the drug hit the music festival and nightclub scene. It quickly jumped the Atlantic and became popular in the UK and on the Spanish island of Ibiza.

In the US, the DEA managed to get the drug outlawed by placing it on Schedule 1, a category of drug with no valid medical use. Although there were opponents of this action, largely practitioners who wanted to use the drug in their psychoanalysis practices, the DEA eventually prevailed.

By 2000, the drug was being manufactured by criminal groups in the Netherlands and Belgium. US supplies were smuggled from Europe to Canada and then into the US. It was logical then that manufacturing facilities would begin to be found in Canada to feed the American demand. In 2000, US Customs agents seized more than nine million of the pills and in 2005, a shipment of five million pills was found in Australia.

Problems with Ecstasy

Not every person who tried Ecstasy had a good experience with the drug and not every pill sold as Ecstasy actually contained the drug. In one series of tests, only 10-15% of the pills sold as Ecstasy were completely composed of this drug. In many other cases, there was no MDMA in the pill at all or it was composed of a mixture of drugs, occasionally including heroin or methamphetamine.

But even when the pill was straight, unadulterated MDMA, it was possible to have a bad “trip” or even a fatal outcome. Panic attacks, vomiting, blurred vision, faintness, overheating and resultant organ breakdown are possible.

People having bad reactions to Ecstasy began to arrive in emergency rooms. In 1994, there were 253 of these events but by 2001, the number had climbed to 5,542. At music events around the world, reports of deaths began to mount.

In 2010, the Australian Sunday Mail reported that more than 100 young people in that country had died after taking Ecstasy. Between the beginning of 2011 and January 13, 2012, a total of eighteen of British Columbia’s deaths involved Ecstasy or PMMA (Para-Methoxy-Meth-Amphetamine, a drug similar to Ecstasy). Britain’s Daily Mail reported 200 deaths between 1996 and 2011.

In 2012, eight deaths in Alberta, Canada and five in British Columbia were attributed to Ecstasy pills that actually contained PMMA. Ecstasy’s popularity contributed to these deaths without the drug even being involved.


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