Feel stuck in negative thoughts? Take Ecstasy, break out of the blues and make your own personal contribution to the illegal drug market. With over 210 million loyal customers, it is now worth, according to UN estimates, more than the GDP of 88 percent of the world’s countries. On the legal side, Prozac has been prescribed to 54 million people since it was introduced 25 years ago, and antidepressants bring in US$25 billion every year. But depression is on the rise. The World Health Organization predicts that by 2030 it will be the world’s biggest health burden.
San Francisco, USA, 1976. Alexander Shulgin is a 51-year-old pharmacologist, most notable for the minor fame he won inventing a biodegradeable pesticide for the Dow Chemical Company. He has left the company and, apart from occasional consulting work for the Drugs Enforcement Agency, spends his time in his home laboratory. It is a quiet life. Though Shulgin does not yet know it, within two decades the drug he cooks up in his home lab will change the lives of millions of people, spark a cultural revolution, and earn him the nickname “The Godfather of Ecstasy”.
Ecstasy is not a name Shulgin likes – he’d have preferred the compound to have been called “empathy” – but when he first synthesized MDMA (its technical name) and decided to take it himself, he didn’t actually expect it to have any effect. Instead, it caused an “extraordinary, disinhibiting, honest response to self-image, that I found to be unique”. It made him, for up to four hours, blissfully happy. He gave some to his friend Dr. Leo Zeff, a psychologist, and for both men the potential use of MDMA was immediately clear: psychotherapy.
Zeff nicknamed the new compound “Adam”, after the first man in the Bible, and took to the road to introduce it to therapists across the USA. MDMA is uniquely useful for psychotherapy as it reduces activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for feelings of fear, allowing patients to confront past traumas and talk about themselves in detail. But disinhibition isn’t MDMA’s only effect. It also makes users euphoric; filled with energy and a sudden urge to dance. As the 1970s ended, “Adam” was gaining a small following as a party drug. As such, it fell into the hands of Michael Clegg, who had been studying for ordination as a Catholic priest: “my first experience with Ecstasy,” Clegg remembers, “was like hearing Moses on the mountain.” Clegg claims he started off giving the drug away for free, and only later charged for each pill, simply to cover the cost of supply. However honorable his intentions, he marketed the drug as Ecstasy and rapidly became a millionaire. In 1984 alone he sold 500,000 pills in Dallas, Texas, where, still legal, Ecstasy could be bought with a credit card in nightclubs. Suddenly, on nights out, teenagers were bumping into their parents. The government panicked. In 1985, against the advice of their consultants (people like Shulgin), the Drugs Enforcement Agency classified MDMA as a class 1 drug – the same as crack cocaine.
In 2012, new psychoactive drugs are being developed at the rate of almost one a week
It was too late. Within five years, rave culture grew up around Ecstasy in the US and Europe, and the drug came to define a generation as much as LSD had done 20 years earlier. Fighting back, in 2001, the US government made the distribution of MDMA ten times more severely punished, dose for dose, than heroin. But more quietly, in the same year, limited MDMA was finally made legal for therapy. Six to ten percent of the US population suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder at some point their lives, and MDMA remained the most promising treatment for it. Research since 2001 has found it to relieve arthritis, chronic pain, bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anorexia, and Parkinson’s disease as well. As perverse as legislation on MDMA seems, government policies may soon have to contain a new challenge: in 2012, new psychoactive drugs are being developed at the rate of almost one a week. The world is full of Shulgins.
What happens when you take Ecstasy:
You can swallow it, you can snort it, you can rub it on your gums. It will make you very, very happy. MDMA unleashes serotonin – the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of satisfaction and contentment – throughout the brain. But serotonin also regulates many basic bodily functions; take too much MDMA and you may bring on serotonin syndrome, in which you overheat, hallucinate, and lose control of your muscles. Even in reasonable doses, serotonin can make you more than just smug. Inject a lobster with serotonin and it will behave like a dominant animal; people aren’t so different.
Other ways to boost your serotonin:
Blood taken from the jugular veins of 101 men in an Australian study revealed that serotonin levels increase and decrease in direct response to sunlight. Low serotonin caused by a lack of sunlight is thought to lie behind Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Cocoa in chocolate contains tryptophan, which increases serotonin, as well as anandamide, a molecule which acts on human cannabinoid receptors just like marijuana, and phenylethylamine, called the “love drug” because it quickens the pulse.
Ninety percent of the serotonin in your body is in your gut, where it stimulates the contractions that move food through the digestive system. Too much serotonin around the intestine will cause diarrhea: all the feel-good chemicals, in exactly the wrong place.
You need tryptophan to make serotonin, and cheese is one of the richest sources available, although eggs, seeds and caribou meat are close competitors. A 2008 study at the University of Cambridge, UK, found that those with high-tryptophan diets make better, less-emotional decisions.