Rachel Nuwer's Book "I Feel Love" Makes Case for MDMA Therapy | Miami New Times


Better Living Through Ecstasy: Rachel Nuwer Makes the Case for MDMA Therapy

According to Rachel Nuwer's new book, MDMA is not dangerous when used properly and may change life as we know it for the better.
Rachel Nuwer dives into the radical potential of MDMA in her new book I Feel Love.
Rachel Nuwer dives into the radical potential of MDMA in her new book I Feel Love. Photo by Gil Gonzalez/Courtesy of Bloomsbury
Share this:
Ecstasy, molly — by any name, methyl​enedioxy​methamphetamine (MDMA) is one of the most demonized and heavily banned substances on Earth. But according to a new book, MDMA is not dangerous when used properly and may change life as we know it for the better.

Far back in its history, the psychedelic drug known across the globe for its illicit use at raves and in nightclubs was once seen as a breakthrough mental-health treatment. In the 1970s, the then-legal drug became popular with forward-thinking psychotherapists across the country who used its ability to create feelings of openness and euphoria to treat everything from depression to relationship problems.

Even after MDMA was banned as a Schedule-I substance by the FDA amidst the "Just Say No" hysteria of the 1980s, many continued to believe in its therapeutic potential. It's these figures that Brooklyn-based journalist Rachel Nuwer documents in her new book, I Feel Love: MDMA and the Quest for Connection in a Fractured World. The book tells the history of MDMA, from its murky origins in prewar Germany to its status as fuel for rave and dance music's global takeover. The reader is introduced to colorful characters like chemist Alexander "Sasha" Shulgin, whose rediscovery of the molecule allowed it to proliferate among the scientific community in the 1970s, and Michael Clegg, a former priest who became the world's largest supplier of ecstasy as leader of the Dallas-based Texas Group.

Mostly, though, Nuwer focuses on the people trying to make MDMA a legal therapy once again. In particular, she features Rick Doblin, founder of the advocacy group Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), who has been walking a long march through the institutions in order to change perceptions around the drug. Founded in 1986, a year after the ban, MAPS has sponsored clinical trials of MDMA-assisted therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), hosted conferences on psychedelic science, and funded additional research attempting to change perceptions around the drug.

"I think it can be really positive for people," says Nuwer, an environmental writer who began working on the book during the pandemic. "I really tried to convey that this is not a miracle drug, and it's not just going to magically make all your problems go away. It's really what you do with that experience. If you do it in a therapeutic setting afterward, that is going to matter and hopefully make a positive difference. And, you know, maybe that positive difference is going to be small. Maybe it's just like being able to communicate better with your partner or recognize your triggers and deal with them in a healthier way. But for some people, that can really be life-changing."

Nuwer spends much of the book focusing on the positive outcomes from MDMA-assisted therapy trials, which combine the sessions spent under the influence of the drug with more traditional therapy. The idea behind it is simple: The drug causes a sensation of openness and breaks down inhibitions, making patients better able to come to terms with the traumas that they keep locked inside themselves, traumas that affect mental and physical health. Nuwer believes this gives the drug an advantage over similar psychedelic drugs, such as ketamine, that are also in clinical trials.

"It lowers your defenses; it makes you feel that self-love. It's not a dissociative; it's kind of a connector. So for dealing with things like trauma, I think it's going to be more effective."

Case study subjects include a Vietnam veteran, a domestic-abuse survivor, and the daughter of a right-wing billionaire. We follow a severe alcoholic in the UK who quit drinking after the therapy revealed a suppressed memory of his mother's murder and a reformed white supremacist who cut ties with the movement after treatment. All face different afflictions stemming from traumatic circumstances, and the majority report they were better able to deal with their trauma after the therapy.

That's only the beginning. Nuwer also reports on studies conducted by Dr. Gül Dölen at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine that shed new light on MDMA's potential to transform our brains for the better. Dölen's experimental research looks into the drug's effect on the "critical period," the point at which our brains are more receptive to learning social behaviors and other skills. Far from the sensational War on Drugs-era theories about the drug drilling holes in users' brains, MDMA could eventually benefit our brains, reopening critical periods and enhancing the brain's ability to learn and develop.

If the theory is proven, the implications are limitless. The drug could help learn a language or instrument or retrain people who have lost their sense of taste or smell to COVID. Conversely, its ability to strengthen interpersonal bonds could lead to misuse by certain political or ideological groups.

"There are lots of different directions that could take, but I'd say at this point there are way more questions than answers," says Nuwer, who also notes Dölen's fear of the drug being denatured by pharmaceutical companies to remove the mind-altering elements. "This is a highly neutral tool. It could be used for good, it could be used for ill, or it just could be used effectively. It could be if [Dölen is] right about her hypothesis about reopening that critical period, it can be used by people to brainwash others, and that might explain things like the Manson family."

For now, MDMA's potential applications are limited to therapy. Estimates from Doblin, who recently spoke with Nuwer, have put FDA approval of MDMA-assisted therapy in 2024, at which point the drug would be removed from Schedule I. MAPS is working to ensure the treatment is available as widely as possible once that happens and to reform laws in states where substance laws don't default to the federal standard. The group is also trying to address the cost of such therapy, which in the U.S. is no small order. While MAPS has attempted to publish as widely as possible to ensure no patents could compromise the drug's availability, psychedelic therapy is currently costly. Nuwer spoke to one underground therapist offering the treatment for $1,500. Still, it may be a small price to pay for a potentially life-saving mental health treatment.

"There's been so much harm caused by the drug war, not just around MDMA, obviously, but so many other drugs. And not just direct harm, but indirect harm, I think, by keeping this treatment from people who really needed it over the past 37, 38 years now."

Rachel Nuwer in Conversation with Dan Fagin. 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 7, virtual event; booksandbooks.com. Admission is free with RSVP via crowdcast.io.
KEEP NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls. Make a one-time donation today for as little as $1.