Why is MDMA illegal, anyway?

Josh Donelly

There should be good reasons for any law that criminalises people, right? Well, in all jurisdictions in Australia, it is an offence to manufacture, traffic, possess or use MDMA. Here’s a short history of how that happened.

First up, what is MDMA? Its full name is 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methamphetamine and it is chemically related to both the amphetamine and phenylethylamine classes of compounds. The United Nations classes MDMA in the “ecstasy group”, which includes the analogues MDA (3,4-methylenedioxyamphetamine) and MDEA (3,4-methylenedioxyethyl-amphetamine).

MDMA is known to create feelings of empathy and intimacy between individuals, emotional openness, increased energy, reduced anxiety and happiness. The emotional effects of MDMA are predominately caused by the release of serotonin in the brain. The stimulant effects of MDMA (increased energy) are thought to reflect the release of dopamine.

MDMA was first patented by Merck pharmaceuticals in 1912 before it was re-discovered in 1965 by US Chemist Alexander Shulgin. The drug gained popularity in the US among psychologists in the 1970s and early 1980s for enhancing patient communication. Known for creating feelings of empathy, emotional openness, increased energy, reduced anxiety and happiness, MDMA also established itself as a popular recreational drug. In 1984, MDMA was being legally marketed and sold as ecstasy over-the-counter at bars and clubs in Texas.

The US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) permanently placed MDMA in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act in 1986which included drugs of high-abuse potential with no recognised medical use – a decision primarily based on evidence that MDA, a related compound of MDMA, induced serotonergic nerve terminal degeneration in rat brains at frequent high doses. The DEA acted against the recommendation of the administrative law judge who presided over the scheduling hearings, while also disregarding opposition from the medical profession and researchers. This decision can be rightly criticised on the bas­is that too much weight was attributed to limited research on a different substance, and little consideration of potential medical benefits.

Reportedly under pressure from the US, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended that MDMA be placed in Schedule I of the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances. Substances in Schedule I are prohibited, except for limited scientific and medical purposes. The committee chairman disagreed with the ultimate decision, believing that MDMA demonstrated therapeutic value and should not be subject to international control.

MDMA was first discovered in the UK during a raid on a clandestine laboratory in the late 1970s. The British government acted more swiftly than the US, banning MDMA and many related compounds in 1977 despite no use of the drug being recorded.

In Australia, police in Sydney first seized MDMA in 1986. Shortly after, the National Drugs and Poisons Schedule Committee (DPSC) recommended that all States prohibit MDMA. At this time, no drug problem with MDMA existed and no drug data was available. Compelled to conform to the Convention on Psychotropic Substances, the DPSC based its recommendation solely on the contentious decisions made by the DEA and the WHO. Australian States followed the DPSC recommendation, ultimately creating criminal offences for the use, possession and trafficking of MDMA and related drugs.

To this day, there is no clear supporting evidence for the decision to restrict MDMA use in Australia through the application of criminal law. The following posts will show how MDMA prohibition is unjustified, has failed to reach its narrow objective to restrict use, and has had damaging consequences.

Read the series

The case for MDMA regulation

Pharmacist Josh Donelly teamed up with Unharm director Will Tregoning to outline the main arguments for regulated, legal MDMA and what legal access in Australia could look like.

The negative impacts of MDMA prohibition

The damaging effects of MDMA prohibition itself are even more concerning than that failure.

What would Mills have to say about MDMA?

British philosopher John Stuart Mill argued that one’s “own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant” for state intervention.

The risks of MDMA: hysteria and hypocrisy vs the evidence

There is now ample evidence to conclude that the perceived dangerousness of MDMA is not justified by its real risks.