Apr 12, 2006

the timothy leary of mdma
i stumbled upon a good interview with dr. alexander shulgin, one of the first pyschiatrists to conduct research on mdma, better known as ecstasy. he has some interesting points to make about our popular misconceptions of the nature of addiction and of the social uses of drugs.

Q. There is an assumption by a lot of people that MDMA has tremendous abuse potential and is addictive. Is it?

A. The abuse potential of MDMA is as real as the abuse potential of anything that gives pleasure and satisfaction. This applies to MDMA as much as it does to sky diving, mountain climbing and skiing.

I should also point out that to the authorities, abuse is the use of any illegal drug. It's not how you use the drug. It's the fact that the regulator says you can't use it.

On your second point, addiction, there is a tendency to use the word addiction in an almost pejorative or a socially condemning way. I personally tend to avoid the word addiction because of the baggage it carries with it - social unacceptability, legal involvement, pharmacological dependency. I like the word dependency because for one thing it avoids the addiction word; and secondly, it allows me to define two types of dependency - physical dependency and psychological dependency.

In the case of the former, your body will rebel if it does not get what it has become used to. In the case of the latter, you have the psyche, the spirit, the self image, the good feeling about yourself rebelling if you don't have more of the thing that feeds it. Neither are really addiction.

True addiction has traditionally meant being physically dependent on something, so that if it's withdrawn, you go through a crisis that may be life-threatening. Very few drugs satisfy that criterion, although barbiturates come close.

I remember a demonstration medical school about a cat that was given a barbiturate in a regular IP injection. The cat came to expect its injection and turned up every day at noon time to receive it. This went on for about eight months. One day, the cat got saline instead of barbiturate. Within two or three hours, the cat was dead. That is true physical dependency. That is addiction according to its archetypic definition. You do not have that kind of thing with MDMA. In fact, you do not have that kind of thing with psychedelics at all. For one thing they build up tolerance quite rapidly, or refractoriness. In other words, if you take it on the second day, it doesn't have that much effect, while on the third day, it has no effect at all. Nor is increasing the dosage the answer because of the side effects this causes. So you are almost blocked from becoming locked into a pattern of re-use. Physical dependency? Not at all.

You might have psychological dependency with some drugs in this area, such as Ketamine and marijuana. I know a number of people who use these drugs as a matter of habit and are very uncomfortable if that habit is broken. So there is a psychological component with some of these drugs. MDMA does not have that habit.

However MDMA does have a negative aspect. If you do use it with some degree of regularity, for example every week over a period of many weeks, that remarkable empathic magic is lost. Most people only have remarkable experiences with MDMA the first couple of times they use it. After that, the magic is somehow gone.

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