Call for ecstasy to treat trauma stress


Story by Jill Stark, published in The Sunday Age (Melbourne)

ECSTASY pills would be given to Australian bushfire victims, flood survivors and soldiers suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, in a controversial proposal for a clinical trial.

Small overseas studies have shown the illegal party drug to be effective for traumatised patients who have not responded to other treatments. An Australian psychologist is now calling for similar research to be funded here.

Psychologist Stephen Bright, who is affiliated with a group of international clinicians pushing for the medical use of psychotropic drugs such as ecstasy, marijuana and magic mushrooms, said trials in the US and Switzerland showed ecstasy, or MDMA, was safe and effective.

“Patients were followed up for up to an average of 41 months after the last treatment sessions and the findings showed that the therapeutic benefits have been sustained over time,” said Mr Bright, an addiction specialist at Curtin University.

“We’ve had bushfires in Victoria, there’s been flooding in Queensland, we have troops in Afghanistan, there is quite a high incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder. But half of people do not respond to [conventional] treatments. If we had this alternative then that would provide people with significant hope and the opportunity to recover.”

Prior to ecstasy being banned in the US in the mid-1980s after it was found to be a popular recreational drug, some psychiatrists used it to treat post-traumatic stress with positive results.

Jon Currie, head of addiction medicine at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne, said the idea had merit and there was evidence ecstasy could treat post-traumatic stress by acting on neurotransmitters that spark fear of disturbing memories. But he urged caution. “The risks are whether there are any toxic effects in the brain, whether it can do damage to receptors and nerve cells,” Professor Currie said. “As a practical treatment . . . it’s fraught with difficulty.”

Doctors at the US-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies are leading a global push for illegal drugs to be used under medical supervision. They say patients are being denied potentially effective drugs because of tight regulation and fears of a public backlash. Trials so far have found psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, can help alleviate cluster headaches and treat obsessive compulsive disorder.

Research at New York University is using the hallucinogenic drug LSD, also known as acid, to reduce anxiety and pain in terminally ill cancer patients.

In Britain, doctors have applied for funding for a clinical trial of ecstasy on patients with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Mr Bright said Australian patients should have the chance to be part of similar research.

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