When Boulder psychiatrist Will Van Derveer first heard about people treating severe mental health issues with MDMA — popularly known as the party drug ecstasy, or molly — he was extremely skeptical.
He recalled learning it was a drug of abuse and could even burn holes in users’ brains. Then he started seeing the results as it helped trauma survivors and others open themselves up to treatment and become mentally healthier. A paper published in 2011 particularly opened his eyes, he said. It showed 83% of participants with chronic post traumatic stress disorder no longer met the criteria for the disorder, he said.
“My conventional training in psychiatry didn’t give me anything close to 83%,” Van Derveer said. “I’d be lucky if I got the opposite of that, 17%, with that population.”
He soon joined a research team to conduct trials in Boulder, where patients who struggled with treatments for a decade saw marked results. Results that were so promising he made time Tuesday to testify at the Colorado legislature in favor of a bill that would legalize the drug in therapy treatments as soon as it receives federal approval.
After his testimony and the endorsement of all the other speakers, bipartisan House Bill 1344 — sponsored by state Reps. Patrick Neville and David Ortiz, both U.S. Army veterans — passed through the House Public and Behavioral Health and Human Services Committee unanimously. It still needs to clear the entire chamber and the Senate before going to Gov. Jared Polis for consideration.
The bill wouldn’t legalize MDMA as a prescription drug, but would allow its use if it is approved as a therapeutic treatment by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It’s in its final trial through the agency, setting it up for approval as soon as next year, according to The New York Times.
Early trials have shown promise. In the most recent federal trial, 79 people with severe PTSD underwent supportive therapy for 18 weeks; 42 were given MDMA, and 37 received placebos in conjunction with three of their sessions and while in the presence of a trained therapy team.
At the end of it, two-thirds of the patients who received MDMA no longer met the diagnostic criteria for the disorder, compared to one-third of the control group, according to a study about the trial published in Nature Medicine.
“MDMA-assisted therapy has the potential to dramatically transform treatment for PTSD and should be expeditiously evaluated for clinical use,” the study’s authors wrote.
Jonathan Lubecky, a U.S. Marine Corps and Army veteran, became an advocate for the treatment after undergoing it himself as part of an earlier trial. His PTSD drove him to multiple suicide attempts, he said. He was swallowing 42 prescribed pills a day, and they didn’t lessen his symptoms either.
The MDMA treatment, he said, cured him — of the urge to die, of the panic attacks in crowded areas, of the fight-or-flight response when he subconsciously flagged a stranger as a threat.
“MDMA-assisted therapy is why my son has a father and not a folded flag,” Lubecky, a national advocate with Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, testified.
In response to a question about its addictiveness, Lubecky said he did experience euphoria induced by the drug, but in the context of reliving some of the worst moments of his life. In short, he hasn’t felt the urge to take the drug again, even after experiencing other traumas — though knowing it would be available in a treatment setting if needed still brings him comfort.
“I won’t lie — it’s like doing therapy while being hugged by everyone who loves you while in a bathtub full of puppies licking your face,” Lubecky said jokingly, before becoming more solemn about his treatment. “I went in thinking I was just going to talk about Iraq, but I ended up talking about every bad thing in my life… My connection to the medication isn’t something fun. It’s very difficult, very hard. But it’s not traumatic.”
Neville, a Republican representing Castle Rock, sponsored the bill after some initial hesitation. He was open to the concept as a way of expanding medical freedoms. Data from initial medical trials showing the effectiveness of treating people with PTSD led him to sign on to it.
Too many people, veteran or not, are already self-medicating to cope with their symptoms, he said.
“It’s an interesting one,” Neville said of the bill ahead of the committee hearing. “Not something that I would have necessarily jumped on. I had to dig into it and look into it more. But, actually, it’s making a lot of sense when you see the clinical trials that have gone through. It’s pretty darn effective.”
Neville suffered from PTSD when he returned from his deployment to Iraq. He found relief from it in his faith and sense of purpose through work in the legislature, and while he doesn’t see himself using MDMA as treatment, he said it’s good to know it’s an option.
“The cure’s not permanent,” Neville said. “It could pop up at any time, so it’s nice to know (these treatments are) out there.”
Ortiz, a Democrat representing Littleton, likewise said he feels the “dark weight” of PTSD. Efforts like this are another sign of treating mental health like physical health, he said, and he’s hopeful it could be a path to help not just people with PTSD but other mental health conditions.
“If there’s a potential through treatment, using MDMA as a catalyst, to be able to free myself and others of this weight, it is something that’s really exciting and really meaningful,” Ortiz said. “I can’t overstate what this could be the start of.”
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