THE HISTORY OF MDMA
Early research and use.
Early research and use.
MDMA was first synthesized by the chemist Anton Köllisch in Merck in 1912. Merck was at the time interested in developing substances that would stop abnormal bleeding. The chemist wanted to avoid an existing patent for one such compound owned by Bayer: hydrastinine. At the suggestion of fellow lab members Walther Beckh and Otto Wolfes, Köllisch produced a preparation of a hydrastinine derivative, methylhydrastinine. MDMA (in Merck laboratory papers, called methylsafrylamin, safrylmethylamin, or N-methyl-a-methylhomopiperonylamin) was an intermediate compound in methylhydrastinin synthesis. Around the time Merck did not have an interest in MDMA itself. He filed two patent applications on 24 December 1912 outlining the synthesis and certain chemical properties of MDMA and its conversion to methylhydrastinine.
Merck records indicate that its researchers have sporadically returned to the compound. Merck's patent of 1920 defines a chemical modification to MDMA. In 1927, Max Oberlin researched MDMA pharmacology when looking for substances with adrenaline or ephedrine-like effects, the latter being structurally similar to MDMA. Oberlin found that it had comparable effects on vascular smooth muscle tissue, greater effects on the uterus and no local effect relative to ephedrine. MDMA was also found to have an effect comparable to high doses of ephedrine on the blood sugar levels. Oberlin concluded that MDMA's effects are not limited to the sympathetic nervous system. Research was stopped particularly because of a sharp increase in the price of safrylmethylamine, still being used as an intermediate in methylhydrastinine synthesis. In 1952 Albert van Schoor carried out basic toxicological experiments with the drug, most likely when studying new stimulants or circulatory drugs. Work on MDMA wasn't pursued following pharmacological trials. In 1959, while studying stimulants, Wolfgang Fruhstorfer synthesized MDMA for pharmacology experiments. It's uncertain if Fruhstorfer was studying the psychological effects of MDMA in humans.
Outside of Merck, other researchers have begun studying MDMA. In 1953 and 1954, a study of toxicity and behavioral effects in animals injected with mescaline and several analogues, including MDMA, was commissioned by the United States military. Those investigations were declassified in October 1969 and published in 1973, conducted at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The first published scientific study on the substance was a 1960 Polish paper by Biniecki and Krajewski describing the MDMA synthesis as an intermediate.
In the western United States in 1968 MDMA may have been in non-medical use. A study from an August 1970 meeting of crime laboratory chemists suggests that by 1970 MDMA was used for recreational purposes in the Chicago area. MDMA originated as a substitute for its precursor methylenedioxyamphetamine (MDA), a drug that was declared a Schedule 1 product in the United States in 1970 at the time common among psychedelic users.
American chemist and psychopharmacologist Alexander Shulgin reported that he synthesized MDMA in 1965 while researching Dow Chemical Company's methyleneedioxy compounds, but did not test the compound's psychoactivity at this time. Around 1970, Shulgin sent instructions for the synthesis of N-methylated MDA (MDMA) to the founder of a chemical company in Los Angeles, who had asked for them. This person subsequently provided those instructions to a Midwest company. Shulgin may have suspected that he played a part in MDMA emerging in Chicago.
Although not finding especially effective his own interactions with MDMA, Shulgin was impressed with the disinhibiting effects of the medication, and thought it could be useful in therapy. Believing MDMA enabled users to remove habits and clearly perceive the world, Shulgin called the drug 'window'. Occasionally Shulgin used MDMA for relaxation, referring to it as "my low calorie martini," and gave the drug to his friends and researchers who he thought might benefit from it. One such individuals was Leo Zeff, a psychotherapist known to have used psychedelic substances in his practice. Zeff was fascinated with the effects of MDMA when he tried the drug in 1977, and started promoting its use in therapy. Over the years that followed, Zeff traveled across the US and often to Europe, training an estimated 4,000 psychotherapists in the use of MDMA. Zeff called the drug "Adam," believing that it would place users in a state of primordial innocence.
In the late 70s as well as early 80s "Adam" spread through personal networks of psychotherapists, psychiatrists, psychedelic users, and yuppies. Hoping MDMA could avoid criminalization such as LSD and mescaline, while conducting informal research, psychotherapists and experimenters tried to limit the spread of MDMA and information about it. Early distributors of MDMA were deterred by the threat of possible legislation from large-scale operations. This network of "Adam" users consumed an estimated 500,000 doses between the 1970s and the mid-1980s.
A small commercial market developed in the late 1970s for MDMA, consuming around 10,000 doses in 1976. By the early 1980s MDMA has been used in nightclubs like Studio 54 and Paradise Garage in Boston and New York City. By the early 1980s, as the recreational market slowly expanded, a small group of therapeutically minded Boston chemists dominated the production of MDMA. This "Boston Group" could not keep up with growing demand and frequently occurred shortages having begun production in 1976.
Perceiving an opportunity for business, Michael Clegg, the Boston Group's Southwest distributor, began his own "Texas Group," financially backed by Texas friends. Clegg coined "Ecstasy" as a slang term for MDMA in 1981, in order to increase its marketability. Beginning in 1983, the Texas Group mass-produced or smuggled MDMA from California into a Texas laboratory and commercialized tablets using pyramid distribution systems and toll-free numbers. MDMA could be bought via credit card, and sales taxes were paid. MDMA tablets were marketed in brown bottles, under the brand name "Sassyfras." The Texas Group declared "Ecstasy celebrations" in bars and discotheques, describing MDMA as "a nice drug" and "perfect to dance" MDMA was distributed openly in bars and nightclubs in Austin and Dallas – Fort Worth area, becoming popular with yuppies, college students, and gay people.
Recreational use also grew after many cocaine dealers moved from encounters with the drug to selling MDMA. A laboratory in California that analyzed the drug samples sent confidentially first identified MDMA in 1975. The number of MDMA samples rose during the following years, ultimately reaching the number of MDA samples in the early 1980s. By the mid-1980s, the use of MDMA had spread to colleges across the USA.
Since moving to Paris in 2003, designer Rick Owens hasn't visited Los Angeles once. Though his creative life began there, California is overshadowed by memories of his younger self in a tiny studio with one seamstress. "I am just reminded, of not fully developed, the weak me there," he says. There have been drugs and booze and a disorderliness he is keen to leave behind.