Why is MDMA illegal, anyway?

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.Unicorn_pill.jpg

First up, what is MDMA? It's 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 1986, which 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. Following posts will show how MDMA prohibition is unjustified, has failed to reach its narrow objective to restrict use, and has had damaging consequences.

This is the first of a series of six posts, based on Josh’s paper ‘The case for MDMA (ecstasy) regulation’ (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26349381) published in the Journal of Law and Medicine, June 2015, 22(4):823-45. The paper challenges the medical and legal case for preventing legal access to MDMA and criminalizing users, and proposes a properly regulated alternative. Access the full text with references here 

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  • Anonymous
    idk its fun
  • Douglas Barnes
    Christ, what a truckload of crazy in the comments.
  • Angela Eisenhauer
    ’’’’I would suggest for your benefit that you do some further background reading. Then reconsider your views and contemplate whether they stem from scientific evidence or merely personal prejudice.‘’’ Beg pardon?
    No I dont want to consume MDMA, if you want to, that is up to you! But as for expecting me to study it, and say it is safe, no, no tablets, or amphetamines, are safe……….nor are antipsychotics, antidepressants, stimulants, or any other pharma produced rubbish. But you are perfectly welcome to consume them if you so wish. You never answered my question.do you expect to make this stuff in your kitchen, and sell it?
  • Angela Eisenhauer
    My opinion is my opinion……. call me all the nasty things you choose. Synthetic compounds never replace organic compounds. If they did we wouldnt eat food, we would just take our daily chemical powders..; As for poisonous things occuring in nature, yes I know not to eat toadstools, and not to eat rhubarb leaves……….but sorry your quote ""There are many poisonous things occurring in nature that are far more dangerous than man made substances. "" references please, man made substances? are safer? references please?…. why should I do background reading? I have no interest in either making MDMA, nor consuming it……… my quote "" so just like Antidepressants, I would ""say"" MDMA is very addictive. If you want to eat it fine, but dont expect me to.
  • Vivian Nguyen
    Angela, I believe the question about cannabis was intended for you to answer whether synthetically produced compounds that do occur in nature would be acceptable to consume despite being man made – there was no claim that those specific ingredients alone replicate cannabis exactly. To quote yourself on MDMA you state that you “Know nothing about this drug”, yet you say “MDMA is very addictive”. Merck are not ‘flogging it for profit’ because the patent expired a long time ago. There are many poisonous things occurring in nature that are far more dangerous than man made substances. Just because it is a man-made chemical doesn’t make it an inferior choice of drug. I think you have completely missed the issue the author is trying to get across. I would suggest for your benefit that you do some further background reading. Then reconsider your views and contemplate whether they stem from scientific evidence or merely personal prejudice.
  • Angela Eisenhauer
    And Joshua, you can not make cannabis from synthetic chemicals, there are about 80? different cannabanoids in the cannabis plant, that we KNOW OF at the present time, and a whole lot of other substances, that we know little about. Yes they have made THC sythetically, but that does not equate to recreating the compounds in a cannabis plant. That is merely so a drug company can patent a product, and sell it for big profits, while use of the herb itself, is banned.
    MDMA is not a herb, it is a collection of chemicals, and as such, I believe it is about as useful, as most other chemicals, sold by pharma companies, many kill people, but makes a whopper of a profit for pharma.
    If you want to take a chemical, fine, but as for trying to say it has some sort of healing power, no. You want o get happy, so just like Antidepressants, I would say MDMA is very addictive. I dont think people should produce this in their kitchens, and sell it.
  • Angela Eisenhauer
    Chemicals, yes the periodic table. Many of those elements are pure poison. Just because everything breaks down to atoms, doesnt mean organic things, can be recreated from pure elements. That is absurd. Monsanto might be trying, but people are getting sick.
    I said I cannot support its use (MDMA)…., please tell me where I ever said it should be criminal to use it? If Merck could still sell it, for some pretend illness, of course they would, and it would be legal…
    The only criminals are the pharma companies, who poison people with pills, for profit. Read study329.org you might understand.
    If pharma are not prosecuted for murder, why the hell should people be prosecuted for taking pills?
    my facebook is angela coral eisenhauer………….. Perhaps you need to read some of my posts.
    You want to get happy on MDMA, why? Is it curing your illness? Is it stopping pain? If MDMA was useful for these things, Merck would be flogging it for profit by now.
  • Vivian Nguyen
    Hi Angela. You mentioned you might not be able to explain yourself clearly. I must admit, I found your comments extremely difficult to follow. My reading of your opinion is that you have an issue with things manufactured by humans, versus compounds that occur naturally. You pointed out there are multiple ways to make alcohol (or ethanol) and that “one will kill you”. This is not a valid scientific argument. Of course, a certain amount ethanol will kill a person. Whether it is made from ethene using a catalyst, or by fermentation – the ethanol produced at the end is made up of the same atoms. Everything on the periodic table is a chemical. Food is a collection of chemicals; all the ‘natural contents’ you refer to are chemicals. Even accepting your view on manufactured drugs, banning recreational substances like MDMA is much more harmful to society as it is manufactured illegally. Not to mention the damage caused by the illicit drug trade and the criminalisation of users.

    I may not have understood you correctly. If so, can you explain your point with more clarity?
  • Angela Eisenhauer
    Even to make alcohol, we use fermentation – does this make it acceptable or manufactured? alcohol isnt made from a mixture of synthetic chemicals……….. two types of alcohol, you can buy, from a chemistry plant……. one will kill you.
  • Angela Eisenhauer
    If it was legal, are you saying people could mix this stuff up in their backyards? I think not.
  • Angela Eisenhauer
    As for enhancing patient communication? That can be very dangerous. A psych drug, once allowed me to open up, and tell a psych, that “’time is not a constant”……….. outcome? I got judged as psychotic, medicated, and the bastard nearly killed me. Reality? Time is not a constant, but I didnt have my damn Stephen Hawkins book with me ""A brief history of time"", to explain. This psych had not an ounce of knowledge of physics, I do…………. so opening up, and telling people stuff, they have no way of understanding, is a very, very risky move.
  • Angela Eisenhauer
    Manufactured drugs are chemicals, made by chemical companies. Drugs that occur naturally, are much more ""real"". Saying manufactured drugs are the same as those that occur naturally, is like saying we can just eat a collection of chemicals, instead of eating real food. Sure you get salt, and sugar, and iron, and manganese………….. but with real food, you get these things with thousands of other contents…………..natural contents. Pharma focus on one chemical, expecting that to solve one problem….. organic life, does not work that way. MDMA was made by Merck? Merck and have all the other pharma companies, been fined for fraud, many times, so why trust a pharma company? Yes everything comes from nature, except man made chemicals………… mixing stuff in a test tube, is not the same as something that is growing, and alive. I am unusual, I understand pathology, ie haematology, biochemistry, microbiology, and also chemical analysis and horticulture. I may not explain myself very clearly………. LSD was made by the US army, no way would I use that either. Also, giving two year olds paxil, is obscene, yet legal?
  • Joshua Donelly
    @angela. Lets discuss your position as I would like to understand it better. I will kick things off. Nobody should be compelled to support the use of any drug. Substances can still be legal while promoting the idea that drug use is in many circumstances unhealthy. Everything on earth is made up of atoms, so in the beginning everything comes from nature. I can’t see a valid reason for making a distinction between manufactured drugs and those that occur naturally. Even to make alcohol, we use fermentation – does this make it acceptable or manufactured? Hypothetically, lets imagine marijuana was never discovered and we created the active ingredients synthetically – what would your position be in this case?
  • Angela Eisenhauer
    Know nothing about this drug. But as it is a manufactured drug, I cant support its use, sounds too much like a pharma drug to me………. should be banned just like Ritalin, and all that crap.