Science  /  Book Review

Ecstasy’s Odyssey

When the creator of MDMA first experimented with the drug, he felt a mellow sensation that he compared to "a low-calorie martini."
Torsten Passie

What can explain the 180-degree turn from the late-twentieth-century medical consensus to that of today? It cannot be presented as a simple narrative of scientific progress: there has been no paradigm shift in neuroscience that could account for it. A cynic might suggest that science simply follows the money, and it is true that the funding streams of the 1980s and 1990s overwhelmingly favored studies that elucidated the harms of illicit drugs, particularly their addictive potential, whereas the billions of research dollars now flowing into psychedelics and MDMA are aimed at making the case for their therapeutic and social benefits.

One might also observe that the science has shifted in emphasis, from brains to broader social studies. But perhaps another part of the explanation lies in the substance itself. A continuous thread through psychedelic research, from its origins in the 1950s to today, has been the finding that these drugs increase suggestibility: whatever the question asked, subjects on psychedelics are much more likely to reply in the affirmative. Psychedelic science displays a similarly obliging tendency to produce the results that researchers seek.

The interplay of science and shifting cultural meanings is illuminated by two excellent new histories of MDMA, I Feel Love by the science journalist Rachel Nuwer and The History of MDMA by the pharmacologist Torsten Passie. Both tell essentially the same story; Passie’s account is underpinned by a deep knowledge of the scientific literature, Nuwer’s by diligent reportage and lively writing.

When MDMA came to the attention of psychedelic science in the 1970s, it was an obscure and little-studied compound. It had been synthesized by German chemists and patented by the Merck pharmaceutical company in the 1910s, long before the discovery of LSD or psilocybin, but apparently it was never tested on human subjects: the patents were issued for its use as an intermediate compound in new drug syntheses. Throughout the first psychedelic era of the 1950s and early 1960s, it was one of a series of synthetic mescaline derivatives, together with similar compounds such as MDA and MMDA, which were covertly investigated by military researchers and the CIA in animal experiments. Along with most psychoactive substances known at the time, some of these compounds had been briefly used as “truth drugs,” or pharmacological interrogation aids, both in Nazi Germany and by US military intelligence, but the classified material that has come to light includes no evidence that MDMA was ever given to human subjects.