MDMA research meets Australian antipathy

In Australia attempts to establish a trial of MDMA have proven difficult. Sandy McFarlane, a PTSD researcher at the University of Adelaide, reflects the cautious mood. “It’s important not to get overly excited,” he says. “It has to be 95% science, 5% hope, and I think at the moment it really is a little too early.”

But for addiction psychologist Stephen Bright this is a missed opportunity. He is is vice-president of PRISM – Psychedelic Research in Science and Medicine – set up in 2011 to mirror the work of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in the US. “In psychiatry, there hasn’t been a revolutionary drug since Prozac came out,” he says; that was in the 1990s.

Melbourne-based psychiatrist Nigel Strauss has also been agitating for research into MDMA and psychedelics. “There is an element of the new paradigm in these drugs and it’s exciting,” he says.

In 2015, he and others put together a proposal to study the use of MDMA to treat PTSD at a university in Melbourne. The night before it was due to be reviewed by the ethics committee, the university’s vice-chancellor of research deemed the study too controversial.

After that, Strauss says, “I had lots of discussions around town and realised that pretty much every university was going to adopt that attitude.” Strauss now focuses his efforts on educating people about the research that’s happening elsewhere, hoping that de-stigmatising the drugs will clear the path for research in the future.

Such resistance perplexes American psychiatrist Michael Mithoefer, whose own 2001 MDMA study was backed by MAPS. “We’re not saying this is the best thing since sliced bread,” he says. “We’re saying we should do careful research.”

“The fact there’s resistance to doing careful research is disturbing because we’re talking about finding better treatments for people who are committing suicide. So it’s not a trivial matter.”

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