U.S. to Ban Use of Drug MDMA : Street Abuse Cited; Used by Psychiatrists

Times Staff Writer

The Drug Enforcement Administration has decided to temporarily ban use of the controversial drug MDMA starting July 1, a federal source said Thursday.

The drug, known on the street as Ecstasy, has been a source of dispute between health professionals, who contend that MDMA is increasingly being used as a recreational drug, and a small group of psychiatrists, who claim that it is a useful therapeutic tool.

John Lawn, acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, signed an emergency order Tuesday to list MDMA as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, the most restricted classification designed for drugs with a high abuse potential, such as heroin and LSD, said a DEA source who requested anonymity. The DEA will announce the ban at a news conference today, the source said.


The drug had been legal, but when the DEA ban goes into effect, all medical and street use of MDMA will be prohibited, and users will be prosecuted.

The DEA, which was granted power to ban drugs in an emergency under the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, used the emergency power once before when it banned methyl fentanyl--known as a designer drug or synthetic heroin--in March.

The ban will not preclude DEA hearings, set for June 10 and 11 in Los Angeles, where proponents and critics of the drug will testify. The DEA decision is “temporary,” the source said, and a final decision on the drug will be made after the hearings in Los Angeles and two others later in the summer in Kansas City and Washington. Because of escalating street use, the DEA decided to take immediate action instead of waiting until all the data was collected after the hearings.

Dr. Philip Wolfson, a San Francisco psychiatrist who will testify in Los Angeles, said the DEA decision was a “bloody shame.”

“Now all scientific exploration will be halted,” he said. “We’re not going to get the chance to see the real potential of the drug.”

Said to Dissolve Barriers

Proponents of MDMA, which has a chemical composition that is related to both amphetamines and mescaline--a hallucinogen--contend that the drug dissolves barriers between therapists and patients, helps people trust each other and relaxes inhibitions.


But some health professionals point to adverse side effects and have pushed for stricter regulation of MDMA, which has become one of the most sought-after street drugs. At the Haight-Ashbury Clinic in San Francisco, several patients a month who have taken large doses of the drug seek treatment for paranoia, delusions and anxiety, a clinic spokesman said.

The non-medical use of MDMA has climbed from about 10,000 doses a year in 1976 to the current 360,000 doses a year, estimated Ronald K. Siegel, a psychopharmacologist at the UCLA School of Medicine. Extensive research is needed before the drug is made available to patients in therapy, he said, because little is known about its long-term effects and toxicity.