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What is MDMA?

The so-called “club drug” MDMA continues to be used by millions of Americans across the country, despite evidence of its potential harmful effects  3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA, or ecstasy) has gained a deceptive reputation as a “safe” drug among its users. This illegal drug, which has both stimulant and psychedelic properties, is often taken for the feelings of well-being, stimulation, and the distortions in time and sensory perceptions that it produces.

MDMA first became popular in the “rave” and all-night party scene, but its use has now spread to a wide range of settings and demographic subgroups. Accordi to the 2004 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, more than 11 million people have tried MDMA at least once.

Myths abound about both the acute effects and long-term consequences of this drug, often called ecstasy or “X.” Indeed, one reason for the rapid rise in the drug’s popularity is that many young people believe that MDMA is a new safe drug. But MDMA is not new to the scientific community, as many laboratories began investigating this drug in the 1980s, and the picture emerging from their efforts is of a drug that is far from benign.

For example, MDMA can cause a dangerous increase in body temperature that can lead to kidney failure. MDMA can also increase heart rate, blood pressure,  and heart wall stress. Animal studies show that MDMA can damage specific neurons in the brain. In humans, the research is not conclusive at this time; however, a number of studies show that long-term, heavy MDMA users suffer cognitive deficits, including problems with memory.

MDMA is an illegal drug that acts as both a stimulant and psychedelic, producing an energizing effect, as well as distortions in time and perception and enhanced enjoyment from tactile experiences. Typically, MDMA (an acronym for its chemical name 3,4 methylenedioxymethamphetamine) is taken orally, usually in a tablet or capsule, and its effects last approximately 3 to 6 hours. The average reported dose is one to two tablets, with each tablet typically containing between 60 and 120 milligrams of MDMA. It is not uncommon for users to take a second dose of the drug as the effects of the first dose begin to fade.

MDMA can affect the brain by altering the activity of chemical messengers, or neurotransmitters, which enable nerve cells in the brain to communicate with one another. Research in animals has shown that MDMA in moderate to high doses can be toxic to nerve cells that contain serotonin and can cause long-lasting  damage to them. Furthermore,  MDMA raises body temperature. On rare but largely unpredictable occasions, this has led to severe medical consequences,  including death.  Also, MDMA causes the release of another neurotransmitter,  norepinephrine, which is likely the cause of the increase in heart rate and blood pressure that often accompanies MDMA use.

Although MDMA is known universally among users as  ecstasy, researchers have determined that many ecstasy tablets contain not only MDMA but also a number of other drugs or drug combinations that can be harmful as well. Adulterants found in MDMA tablets purchased on the street include methamphetamine, caffeine, the over-the-counter cough suppressant dextromethorphan, the diet drug ephedrine, and cocaine. Also, as with many other drugs of abuse, MDMA  is rarely used alone. It is not uncommon for users to mix MDMA with other substances, such as alcohol and marijuana.

This information is from the National Institute on Drug Abuse website.