New MDMA Research Could Alter Drug Policy

Meet the scientists working to revisit flawed studies that made a huge impact.

The work of a group of scientists studying the effects of MDMA may help reform policy surrounding the drug.
Psychonaught/Creative Commons

If you’ve followed the debate over the legalization of marijuana, you might already be familiar with the way the United States classifies different drugs. The federal government’s system of drug scheduling determines a number of things related to the government’s handling of specific drugs. A 2016 article in Vox noted that the scheduling system “accounts for a drug’s medical value as much as a drug’s potential for abuse.”

While the scheduling system’s handling of marijuana has been in the public eye the most, it’s not the only high-profile instance of this — there’s also an ongoing debate around how MDMA is scheduled. In a recent article for The Verge, writer Christina Couch explored the work of a group of researchers whose area of study is MDMA.

They’re based at Columbia University, at the Neuropsychopharmacology Lab there. Dr. Carl Hart, author of several books and the Chair of Columbia University’s Department of Psychology is one of them — he’s repeatedly called for a science-based approach to drug policy. At the center of Couch’s article is Christopher Medina-Kirchner, a PhD student at Columbia with a very personal stake in his research — as a young man, he was jailed for selling marijuana and ecstasy.

The work that Medina-Kirchner is doing now is intended to provide scientists with more information about MDMA’s effects on humans. Couch writes that much of the evidence that caused MDMA to be designated a Schedule I drug in the 1980s, a designation that indicates “the punitively harshest category reserved for drugs like heroin that are deemed to have no medical uses and a high potential for abuse,” was based on faulty or flat-out incorrect science.

The work that Hart and Medina-Kirchner are doing may well lead to reforms in drug policy going forward. It’s a fascinating look at the ways science and federal policy do (and don’t) converge — something with plenty of implications both now and in the future.

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