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Live TV MDMA Study Airs in the UK

A two-part investigation into the potential therapeutic properties of MDMA, involving illicit drug use by volunteers on live TV, causes controversy.

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A street drug gets its own reality show.
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By May Wilkerson

09/26/12

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Tonight on British TV, volunteers are taking MDMA live on air as part of a study of the drug's effects on the brain, for the documentary series Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial. "The programs aim to cut through the emotional debate surrounding the issue and accurately inform the public about the effects and potential risks of MDMA," says the website for Channel 4, which will air the two-part live series. Some argue that the use of illicit substances on TV trivializes and condones drug use; but others consider it a welcome way of publicizing vital scientific research—preliminary studies suggest MDMA (the pure form of ecstasy) may be useful in treating depression and PTSD. This trial could "pave the way to further research into potential therapeutic uses of MDMA, such as in the treatment of PTSD" says former member of parliament Evan Harris, who is participating in the trial. Other volunteers will include British actor Keith Allen, a novelist, a vicar and an ex-soldier. The trials are a continuation of an earlier study by Professor David Nutt of Imperial College London into the potential of psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) to alleviate depression.

Nearly half a million Brits are estimated to take ecstasy every year, helping the UK earn the title of the "drug-taking capital of Europe," according to a recent EU Drugs Agency report. Use of the drug carries risks, including dehydration and possible heart failure, memory loss, and possible long-term brain damage; but in its pure form, it may have healing properties too. Researchers suggest that MDMA may allow PTSD sufferers to access negative memories without feeling threatened and overwhelmed—a step that is thought to be crucial for recovery. And its psychedelic properties—much like psilocybin—might be useful in treating depression, by breaking down rigid and self-destructive thinking patterns, and helping individuals access memories of happier times. Although using MDMA as part of a scientific study is technically legal, "the prohibitionist policies towards psychoactive substances create a strong taboo, which makes many scientists, universities and funding bodies unwilling to become involved" writes Amanda Feilding, a drug policy reformer who is a strong proponent of investigating the therapeutic properties of illicit drugs, in The Guardian. "Let us hope that before too long, the stain of the taboo will be washed away, and scientific evidence will prevail." 

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