Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Peder Clark. Dr. Clark is a historian of modern Britain, with research interests in drugs, subcultures, health, everyday life, and visual culture. He completed his PhD in 2019 at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and currently holds a position at the University of Liverpool.
Popular perceptions of MDMA (3,4 Methylenedioxymethamphetamine) are of its identity as “molly” or ecstasy—a good-time party-drug for young people around the world. So, flicking through the Guardian newspaper a few weekends ago, I was intrigued to read a feature on a recently opened clinic in Bristol, UK, that intends to use MDMA for psychotherapeutic purposes. The bio-tech company, Awakn Life Sciences, led by consultant psychiatrist Ben Sessa and clinical psychologist Laurie Higbed, is not currently able to offer MDMA therapy, and the newspaper reports that the company is “hamstrung by the current global legislation, which says the drug can be used only in an experimental setting.”
Consequently, the clinic offers ketamine-assisted therapy, initially focusing on alcoholism with ambitions to eventually provide treatment for “depression, anxiety, eating disorders and most addictions.” As the article makes clear, Awakn’s clinic is part of a much wider interest in what, it calls, “psychedelic-assisted therapy,” leading to a veritable “psychedelics gold rush” as investors sense a growing market.
By coincidence, I also happened to be reading Lucas Richert’s latest book Break on Through: Radical Psychiatry and the American Counterculture. As its title indicates, Break on Through is situated in the 1970s and features, among other episodes, the early years of MDMA-assisted therapy. MDMA was first synthesized in 1912 as a hemostatic agent (i.e. to aid blood-clotting and prevent bleeding) in the laboratories of Merck, the Darmstadt, Germany, based pharmaceutical corporation. Patented that same year, the company only occasionally mentioned MDMA in internal company documents up until the 1950s. Despite these inauspicious beginnings, the patent also contained a clue to one of its further usages, alluding to its potential use “as an intermediate in the production of therapeutic compounds.”