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what is ecstasy used for : Ecstasy (MDMA) is an empathogenic drug of the phenethylamine and amphetamine classes of drugs.


What is ecstasy used for?

Ecstasy (MDMA) tablets white

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What is ecstasy used for?

Ecstasy, also commonly known as “Molly,” is a synthetic drug known primarily for its hallucinogenic and stimulant effects. It’s known to impart feelings of increased energy, pleasure, emotional warmth, and distorted sensory and time perception.

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The chemical name for ecstasy is 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA). It is a derivative of amphetamine and has a similar structure to methamphetamine (“meth”).

Some of the most colorful slang terms used for ecstasy (MDMA), based on the name of the drug, effects, and appearance, include:

  • Adam
  • Beans
  • Candy
  • Clarity
  • E
  • Essence
  • Happy Pill
  • Hug Drug
  • Molly
  • Scooby Snacks
  • Lover’s Speed
  • X
  • XTC

While ecstasy was initially used primarily in nightclubs and raves, its use has now spread to a wider range of populations.

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What is ecstasy used for?

Signs of Ecstasy Use

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, MDMA causes a range of effects including:

  • Anxiety
  • Attention problems
  • Confusion
  • Decreased libido
  • Depression
  • Impulsiveness
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Memory problems
  • Reduced appetite

The effects of MDMA typically last for three to six hours.

Types of Ecstasy

Ecstasy is usually taken in tablet or capsule form, but it can also be swallowed as a liquid or snorted as a powder.1

  • Tablets: Ecstasy typically comes in a tablet form that’s often imprinted with graphic designs or commercial logos.
  • Powder: Ecstasy known by the popular nickname Molly (which is slang for “molecular”) is often used for the supposedly “pure” crystalline powder form of MDMA. However, Molly is often combined with other substances like synthetic cathinone (bath salts), according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

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Unlike other recreational drugs such as cocaine and nicotine, which are derived from plants, ecstasy is synthesized by altering the structure of the amphetamine molecule. Because of the way it’s made, its purity can vary substantially, and other compounds can be easily combined into the same tablet. Ecstasy additives and contaminants often include methamphetamine, caffeine, ephedrine, and ketamine.


Though known today mainly as a recreational drug, ecstasy has also been used off-label in medical contexts. Ecstasy was briefly explored as a therapeutic drug, as some psychotherapists believed it opened people up and enhanced their potential for empathy and understanding of one another.1

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This use was interrupted by the criminalization of MDMA. The view that ecstasy can reliably enhance the therapeutic process has now fallen out of favor in the psychotherapeutic community.

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Ecstasy was classified as a Schedule I drug in 1985, which means that the substance has a high potential for abuse and is not used to treat medical conditions.2

Impact of Ecstasy

Ecstasy works by influencing the activity of three chemicals in the brain: dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. These chemicals play a role in a number of different functions in the body including energy levels, mood, emotions, and sleep.

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The immediate impact of ecstasy begins within about 45 minutes of taking a dose. People typically experience an increased sense of well-being and emotional warmth. Other effects include feeling greater empathy toward others and enhanced sensory perception.

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While people use ecstasy experience these increased feelings of euphoria and alertness, taking the drug also has a number of adverse impacts including:3

  • Disorganized thoughts
  • Feelings of detachment
  • Increased anxiety
  • Increased heart rate
  • Irritability
  • Nausea
  • Poor appetite
  • Sweating and hot flashes

Overdose is rare but can be life-threatening. Ecstasy overdose symptoms can include faintness, panic attacks or extreme anxiety, high blood pressure, and seizures. When ecstasy use is followed by vigorous physical activity, it can lead to a potentially dangerous rise in body temperature known as hyperthermia.3

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Another significant danger is the fact that people who take ecstasy don’t really know what they are actually ingesting. In one study, researchers found that only 60% of samples tested contained any MDMA at all and many were mixed with so-called “fake cocaine.” In nearly 25% of the samples, the researchers were unable to identify what was actually in the tablets.4

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History of Ecstasy

MDMA was initially developed in 1912 as a pharmaceutical compound that could be used in the preparation of other pharmaceuticals, and it was patented in 1914. But once the drug’s hallucinogenic properties were discovered, further development was stopped for several decades.

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Ecstasy was one of several drugs tested in a military context decades after. It was then re-synthesized, first by Gordon Alles, then by Alexander Shulgin, who tested it on himself, his wife, and his friends. Shulgin went on to develop a range of new compounds, with varying effects and risks, including MDMA and PMMA (paramethoxymethamphetamine), many of which ended up as versions of street ecstasy. It was many years after this that MDMA eventually appeared on the streets as a recreational drug.

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An earlier version of ecstasy, MDMA became popular as a recreational drug during the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1980s, MDMA became fashionable as a party drug in the nightclub and rave scene and its use grew among college students, “yuppies,” and in the gay community.

However, due to concerns about the health risks associated with ecstasy, it was made illegal in the United Kingdom in 1977, way ahead of its popularity in that country. It was made illegal in the United States in 1985, at which time it was classified by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as a Schedule I drug, according to the Controlled Substances Act.

For a few years, in an attempt to circumvent the law, different versions of ecstasy were synthesized, which was the basis of the designer drugs movement. This production was eventually outlawed but re-emerged as a problem around 2000 with the popularity of homemade crystal meth.

What is MDMA?

3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA) is a synthetic drug that alters mood and perception (awareness of surrounding objects and conditions). It is chemically similar to both stimulants and hallucinogens, producing feelings of increased energy, pleasure, emotional warmth, and distorted sensory and time perception.

MDMA was initially popular in the nightclub scene and at all-night dance parties (“raves”), but the drug now affects a broader range of people who more commonly call the drug Ecstasy or Molly.

MDMA pill
Courtesy of DEA

How do people use MDMA?

People who use MDMA usually take it as a capsule or tablet, though some swallow it in liquid form or snort the powder. The popular nickname Molly (slang for “molecular”) often refers to the supposedly “pure” crystalline powder form of MDMA, usually sold in capsules. However, people who purchase powder or capsules sold as Molly often actually get other drugs such as synthetic cathinones (“bath salts”) instead (see “Added Risk of MDMA“).

Some people take MDMA in combination with other drugs such as alcohol or marijuana.

How does MDMA affect the brain?

MDMA increases the activity of three brain chemicals:

  • Dopamine—produces increased energy/activity and acts in the reward system to reinforce behaviors
  • Norepinephrine—increases heart rate and blood pressure, which are particularly risky for people with heart and blood vessel problems
  • Serotonin—affects mood, appetite, sleep, and other functions. It also triggers hormones that affect sexual arousal and trust. The release of large amounts of serotonin likely causes the emotional closeness, elevated mood, and empathy felt by those who use MDMA.

Other health effects include:

  • nausea
  • muscle cramping
  • involuntary teeth clenching
  • blurred vision
  • chills
  • sweating
A young woman looking depressed.
Photo(link is external) by ©Jochen Schoenfield/Shutterstock

MDMA’s effects last about 3 to 6 hours, although many users take a second dose as the effects of the first dose begin to fade. Over the course of the week following moderate use of the drug, a person may experience:

  • irritability
  • impulsiveness and aggression
  • depression
  • sleep problems
  • anxiety
  • memory and attention problems
  • decreased appetite
  • decreased interest in and pleasure from sex

It’s possible that some of these effects may be due to the combined use of MDMA with other drugs, especially marijuana.

What are other health effects of MDMA?

High doses of MDMA can affect the body’s ability to regulate temperature. This can lead to a spike in body temperature that can occasionally result in liver, kidney, or heart failure or even death.

In addition, because MDMA can promote trust and closeness, its use—especially combined with sildenafil (Viagra®)—may encourage unsafe sexual behavior. This increases people’s risk of contracting or transmitting HIV/AIDS or hepatitis.

Read more about drug use and HIV/AIDS in DrugFacts: HIV/AIDS and Drug Abuse

Read more about drug use and hepatitis.

Added Risk of MDMA

Adding to MDMA’s risks is that pills, capsules, or powders sold as Ecstasy and supposedly “pure” Molly may contain other drugs instead of or in addition to MDMA. Much of the Molly seized by the police contains additives such as cocaine, ketamine, methamphetamine, over-the-counter cough medicine, or synthetic cathinones (“bath salts”). These substances may be extremely dangerous if the person does not know what he or she is taking. They may also be dangerous when combined with MDMA. People who purposely or unknowingly combine such a mixture with other substances, such as marijuana and alcohol, may be putting themselves at even higher risk for harmful health effects.

Is MDMA addictive?

Research results vary on whether MDMA is addictive. Experiments have shown that animals will self-administer MDMA—an important indicator of a drug’s abuse potential—although to a lesser degree than some other drugs such as cocaine.

Some people report signs of addiction, including the following withdrawal symptoms:

  • fatigue
  • loss of appetite
  • depression
  • trouble concentrating

Does MDMA Have Value in Therapy?

MDMA was first used in the 1970s as an aid in psychotherapy (mental disorder treatment using “talk therapy”). The drug did not have the support of clinical trials (studies using humans) or approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In 1985, The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) labeled MDMA as an illegal drug with no recognized medicinal use. However, some researchers remain interested in its value in psychotherapy when given to patients under carefully controlled conditions. MDMA is currently in clinical trials as a possible treatment aid for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); for anxiety in terminally ill patients; and for social anxiety in autistic adults. Recently, the FDA gave MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD a Breakthrough Therapy designation. More information on MDMA research can be found by contacting sponsors of various MDMA studies listed on clinicaltrials.gov.

How can people get treatment for addiction to MDMA?

There are no specific medical treatments for MDMA addiction. Some people seeking treatment for MDMA addiction have found behavioral therapy to be helpful. Scientists need more research to determine how effective this treatment option is for addiction to MDMA.

Points to Remember

  • 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA) is a synthetic drug that alters mood and perception. It is chemically similar to stimulants and hallucinogens.
  • MDMA is commonly called Ecstasy or Molly.
  • People who use MDMA typically take it as a capsule or tablet. Many people take it in combination with other drugs.
  • MDMA acts by increasing the activity of three brain chemicals: dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin.
  • Effects include increased energy, distorted perception, involuntary teeth clenching, dangerously high body temperature, and depression.
  • Many people are unaware that Ecstasy and supposedly “pure” Molly also often contain not only pure MDMA but other drugs that may be particularly dangerous when mixed with MDMA.
  • Research results vary on whether MDMA is addictive. Some people report signs of addiction.
  • Some people seeking treatment for MDMA addiction have found behavioral therapy to be helpful. There are no specific medical treatments for MDMA addiction.

Here Are 4 Conditions That the Drug Ecstasy May Help Treat

If used properly, the party drug known as MDMA may help people with PTSD, anxiety, and other serious ailments.

A party drug could likely be the next breakthrough in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but its potential therapeutic value doesn’t stop there.

MDMA is an illegal substance often referred to by its street names: ecstasy, X, or molly. It has been a staple of late-night clubbing since the 1980s.

However, through a series of recent clinical trials in the United States and abroad, its reputation is changing in the healthcare community.

Currently, MDMA is still a schedule 1 narcotic according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). That means that it’s considered to have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

That designation, however, may soon change.

Researchers recently moved into phase III trials for the drug to treat PTSD, and they say they expect approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the drug by 2021.

To understand why public and medical opinion are changing about MDMA, here are four conditions the drug may one day treat:


After analyzing psychotherapy conducted with MDMA, researchers recently concluded the drug was successful in treating PTSD in a majority of participants.

Their findingsTrusted Source were published this month in the medical journal The Lancet Psychiatry.

The study included 26 participants, including combat veterans, firefighters, and police officers with chronic PTSD.

The researchers said the combination of MDMA and psychotherapy was so effective that following treatment, roughly two-thirds of participants no longer met the clinical criteria for PTSD.

“In a few deep therapeutic sessions with MDMA, people can change decades and decades of patterns of fear based on certain emotions and that’s what’s so remarkable about it,” said Rick Doblin, PhD, an author of the paper and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which funded the research.

PTSD is a major public health problem among military personnel and first responders. PTSD is associated with other psychological issues, including depression, substance use disorder, and risk of suicide.

There are currently only two medications prescribed for the treatment of PTSD. One is sertraline (Zoloft) and the other is paroxetine (Paxil).

However, Doblin and his coauthors note that these treatments offer “limited effectiveness,” particularly in veterans.

Other drugs including SSRIs, benzodiazepines, and mood stabilizers are also sometimes prescribed “off-label” for the treatment of PTSD, although the benefits haven’t been established in clinical trials.


MDMA has been noted for its anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) properties.

Doblin and the MAPS organization have completed small phase II studies for the treatment of social anxiety in adults with autism using MDMA therapy.

They believe the drug could prove helpful for “any cause” of social anxiety, not just in individuals with autism.

MDMA is known to suppress activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain responsible for fear and anxiety.

The drug is described as producing empathetic and prosocial feelings, which help to ameliorate anxiety that’s caused by interacting with other people.


Previous clinical trials have also looked at the positive effects MDMA can have on individuals with depression and anxiety due to life-threatening illnesses.

Like treatment for other disorders, MDMA’s ability to instill feelings of calmness and trust may be helpful in a therapy setting for individuals dealing with depression and other common comorbidities of PTSD.

However, while the potential use for MDMA to treat depression is “theoretically well-grounded,” according to some researchersTrusted Source, the drug’s use for this indication hasn’t been as well-established as it has for others, such as PTSD and anxiety.

MDMA isn’t the only nontraditional drug to be investigated recently as a depression treatment though.

The drug ketamine has also shown promise in this area despite also being a “party drug.”

Alcohol addiction

In 2017, doctors in the United Kingdom began the first-ever clinical study for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy treatment for alcohol addiction.

Similar to the PTSD study, participants would take the drug while taking part in two supervised sessions with a psychiatrist.

Participants are described as heavy drinkers who have tried and relapsed into using alcohol repeatedly, despite other treatments.

Doblin notes that the clinical use for MDMA treatment of alcohol addiction lies in its potential to treat trauma.

“What drives a lot of alcohol or substance abuse is people running away from trauma,” he said.

“After 100 years of modern psychiatry our treatments are really poor,” Dr. Ben Sessa, a clinical psychiatrist at Imperial College London who is overseeing the trials, told a recent convention gathering. “The chances of relapse for these patients are really high — 90 percent at three years. No one has ever given MDMA to treat alcoholism before.”


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