Two Vancouver therapists have become the first Canadians to be permitted to give ecstasy to patients in a scientific trial aimed at finding new ways to help people with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Psychologist Andrew Feldmar and psychiatrist Ingrid Pacey, with the help of the Boston-based organization Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, also known as MAPS, are recruiting 12 people to take part in the trial, which they hope might include Canadian soldiers and police officers.
Mr. Feldmar said that like Vancouver's supervised-injection site, the trial has obtained an exemption from Canada's narcotics laws, and is waiting for an import permit for the Swiss-manufactured drug.
The Vancouver experiment is part of small but growing international movement to use drugs such as LSD, MDMA or ecstasy, and psylocibin as part of therapeutic treatment, which has received significant backing from MAPS. The organization, founded in 1986, is a non-profit focused on lobbying to have psychedelic drugs and marijuana used for treatment.
"There is a new interest," said Mr. Feldmar, who worked at Vancouver's Hollywood Hospital in the 1960s when it used LSD as a treatment for alcoholism. "These substances are extremely effective. It was just when they were used irresponsibly that it created a senseless panic."
MDMA was first synthesized by Merck Pharmaceuticals in 1912, but was rediscovered in the 1960s. It was considered an aid to psychotherapy before it was popularized as a party drug.
Mr. Feldmar said MDMA, often defined as an entheogen or psychoactive drug used to induce a mystical experience, helps people with post-traumatic stress disorder by breaking down barriers that are blocking their recovery.
He said it allows them to experience a sense of being in the present, of feeling connected to their therapist, and of feeling supported and loved.
"You feel connected, therefore you feel able to go back and deal with the trauma."
MAPS executive director Rick Doblin said a U.S. trial in Charleston, S.C., recently ended, and "it got tremendous results," although they haven't been published in a science journal yet.
Small studies have already been done in Israel and Switzerland along the same lines, he said. A study in Spain had to be cancelled after running into opposition there.
An article published this year in the Journal of Psychopharmacology noted the two trials showed initial signs of promise in treating trauma.
Authors Pal-Orjan Johansen and Teri Krebs of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology looked at the three effects MDMA has on brain chemistry:
- It boosts levels of oxytocin, which is what produces the feelings of connectedness and warmth that people on ecstacy experience.
- It balances two regions of the brain, helping a person to control emotional responses better.
- It boosts levels of cortisol and norepinephrine, which control emotional learning.
Mr. Doblin said MAPS designed the Vancouver study, got it through the regulatory process, and will now start raising the $200,000 needed to run it. Eight of the 12 patients will get full-strength doses of ecstacy up to three times during their treatment, while four will get a placebo.
"We want to see if we can replicate the U.S. results in a similar cultural context," he said. "Also, it's important to start research in Canada, because you have a tradition of being pioneering in psychedelic research."
Mr. Doblin said Mr. Feldmar and Dr. Pacey are exceptionally qualified therapists, which made them ideal for the trial.
The two have sent out messages to other Vancouver therapists to recruit patients for the trial. Mr. Feldmar said that could include Afghan war veterans, police, firefighters, people who have been victims of crime, or immigrants who have been tortured in their home countries.
Mr. Feldmar achieved minor fame in 2007, after it was made public that he had been barred from entering the United States when a border guard searched online for his name and found that he had written an article saying he had taken LSD in the 1960s before it became illegal. His story was later featured on The Colbert Report show.
Special to The Globe and Mail