Ecstasy's History

The holders of the original patent for N-methyl-3,4-methylenedioxyphenylisopropylamine, or MDMA, were the German pharmaceutical giant, Merck. The popular myth that it was marketed as an appetite suppressant is almost certainly untrue - the original purpose of the compound was as an intermediate in the manufacture of other products. Had it not been for the intervention of World War I, the world might have discovered Ecstasy sooner, but as it was, the substance was shelved and forgotten about.

The American military showed a fleeting interest in it during the Fifties, when they were experimenting with psychedelic chemicals in search of a "truth serum". But they were all so off their heads on LSD that they failed to pay it any real attention. It was not until the Sixties that it was rediscovered by the legendary latter-day alchemist Alexander Shulgin.

...from Shulgin's laboratory...

The son of Russian emigres, Shulgin first became interested in the power of mind-altering chemicals when he was given morphine for an injured hand. Later, as a young biochemist, he experimented with mescaline and became fascinated by psychedelic drugs. While working for Dow Chemicals, he invented a profitable insecticide, and was rewarded with the opportunity to research anything he wanted. He set about synthesising and testing psychedelic chemicals on the most reliable guinea-pig he could find - himself.

Although Dow eventually became uncomfortable with Shulgin's work and withdrew their support, he was able to continue, with the blessing of the US Government, thanks to his discrete approach and scientifically valuable results. However, his license was withdrawn in 1994, soon after the publication of the landmark classic PIHKAL (Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved), which contains detailed information of some 179 compounds he synthesised and sampled, number 109 being Ecstasy.

Shulgin didn't so much "rediscover" the compound, rather he picked up the ball and ran with it. In 1967, one of his graduate students brought it to his attention, having experimented with it herself. After witnessing uniformly positive results in himself and his associates, in 1977 Shulgin introduced it to Leo Zoff, a psychologist friend nearing retirement. When he tried the drug, Zoff was so impressed that he deferred his retirement, and instead went around the country distributing MDMA to other psychologists. It is estimated that some 4,000 professionals were introduced to the drug in this way.

The psychiatric profession greeted MDMA with quiet enthusiasm. Following the hyjacking of LSD by the hippie counter-culture and its subsequent criminalisation, everyone involved was keen that this new wonder-drug should be kept under wraps. That didn't stop a large number of practitioners experimenting on themselves and their patients, with some very striking results. However, few formal papers were ever written on the work of these pioneering therapists because of the drug's potential for controversy.

...to the global dance-floor...

Needless to say, MDMA didn't stay secret for long. A member of The Boston Group, the company that manufactured the then-legal drug for therapeutic purposes, spotted a whole new, untapped market for it, and enlisted a bunch of coke dealers to help him set up shop. Pretty soon, the spin-off company was selling XTC in bars and clubs, and on credit card hot-lines. By the time it was finally made illegal in the States in 1985, it had become a mainstay of New York's hedonistic gay clubs.

Ecstasy was first brought to Europe by the disciples of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the controversial Indian millionaire guru. In spite of the cult's strict anti-drugs policy, the Bhagwan had adopted this new spiritual elixir, and his army of orange people evangelically distributed it to his centers around the world.

In a strange quirk of fate, MDMA had already been made illegal in Britain in 1977, on account of a particularly enterprising and enthusiastic home chemist in the Midlands. Somehow, he was discovered in the process of manufacturing hallucinogenic amphetamines which were not controlled by the law. To be safe, the British government ammended the drugs laws to include MDMA and its derivatives. So by the time it got to Britain, Ecstasy was already a Class A drug.

All over the world, Ecstasy gathered popularity. In Europe and the States, most users preferred to trip at home with friends. In Britain, the lively music scene fertillized a dynamic "rave" culture, which eventually spread beyond our borders in the early Nineties. At its height, it was estimated that a million pills were swallowed by British kids every weekend.

In Britain, Ecstasy defined a generation. But by the mid-nineties, when demand peaked, it had become very difficult to buy good quality pills. You had no way of telling what you were taking, and the similar but inferior compounds MDA and MMDA were often substituted. (Ketamine, a dissociative anesthetic, is still being sold in London clubs, under the title Ecstasy.) There were casualties. More and more users began to experience psychological problems. Evidence that MDMA caused changes in brain chemistry surfaced. The love drug was falling out of favour.

Elsewhere in Europe, maybe Ecstasy was always a minority thing. But the Brits are slaves to fashion. When MDMA caught on, it caught on big, and the bigger they are, the harder they fall. Nowadays, anyone popping a pill is in danger of looking sadly passé. Fortunately, Ephidrina is now resident in Amsterdam, where drugs are quality controlled, and nobody cares about fashion anyway.



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