Testimony of Dr. David E. Nichols, Ph.D.
Before the United States Sentencing Commission on March 19, 2001
on the topic of

The Proposed Amendment to Increase Guidelines Sentences Concerning MDMA (Ecstasy)

I am a professor of medicinal chemistry and pharmacology from Purdue University.  My laboratory did the earliest work to establish the brain mechanism of action of MDMA, in 1982.  I have published numerous papers on the behavioral and toxic effects of MDMA in laboratory rats.  My remarks are based on my own work and on my general knowledge of the research that has been published on MDMA over the past 20 years.

I believe that the penalties for MDMA are already more severe than is warranted by the present evidence and urge the commission to increase penalties by the least amount necessary to satisfy the congressional directive.  The commission may be attempting to develop sentencing guidelines based upon a consideration of the relative dangers of MDMA compared with other drugs of abuse, specifically methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin.  I do not believe that these particular comparisons are appropriate.

I see three major concerns regarding MDMA.  First is its acute toxicity, that is, what is the immediate health risk of the drug to the user.  Considering numbers of emergency room mentions and medical examiner reports, or by any other measure, the acute toxicity of MDMA is far lower and the drug is more benign than methamphetamine, cocaine, or heroin. 

Second, one must be concerned about the possibility of addiction.  In my opinion, that is one of the very greatest dangers for any drug of abuse, that repeated usage will lead to a state of chronic dependence that may ultimately destroy the life and productivity of the user.   MDMA is not typically taken on a daily basis, nor is there apparently any compulsion or craving to do so.  The effects of MDMA that make it so pleasurable disappear after two or three days of continuous usage.

With regard to the ability of MDMA to produce dependence, it falls far below what is possible with methamphetamine, cocaine, or heroin.  Laboratory rats and monkeys can be trained to self-administer these latter three drugs, and this paradigm is a good model of addictive potential in humans.  Published research reports show that drug-na´ve animals cannot be taught to self-administer MDMA.

Methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin, when used chronically can readily lead to addiction and drug dependence.  Once addiction occurs, the user is forced to find avenues to raise money to buy more and more drug, which leads to much of the crime associated with addictive drugs.  The cycle of addiction and crime destroys people’s lives.  The low addiction potential of MDMA is, in my opinion, a very strong feature that sets MDMA completely apart from these other drugs, and that sets the level of MDMA danger to the user far below that for methamphetamine, cocaine, or heroin.

The third concern about MDMA is the possibility of “brain damage.”  There have been many studies of the effects of high doses of MDMA on brain cells in both rats and monkeys.   The commission has been told that MDMA kills brain cells.  That statement is incorrect.  I shall use an analogy between a brain cell and a tree.  In this analogy, the roots of the tree correspond to the brain cell itself and the branches of the tree correspond to the fiber connections called axons that go out from the brain cells in various directions.  Killing a brain cell would be analogous to killing the roots of the tree, and thus permanently destroying it.  What MDMA does is more like trimming back the branches of the tree.  In laboratory animals large doses of MDMA are known to cause the degeneration of brain serotonin axons.  Depending on the dose of MDMA given, these axons, like the branches of the tree, can resprout and grow back.   Animals given large doses of MDMA to produce this effect show behavior that essentially resembles normal untreated rats.

Recent brain imaging studies of subjects who had used a variety of different drugs of abuse, and who had also used Ecstasy (which may or may not have always been MDMA), showed that there was an apparent significant loss of serotonin axons.  The subjects had used ecstasy an average 200 times, and had taken multiple doses on most occasions.  These subjects represent very extreme ecstasy abuse.  Because we do not have brain scans of these subjects prior to their drug usage, we cannot be certain that the reported decreases actually resulted from MDMA.  Nevertheless, even if one assumes that the apparent loss of brain serotonin axons is due only to MDMA, attempts to measure neurological effects have failed to reveal large differences from control subjects.

The significance of brain axon degeneration and its consequences is controversial.  Does it occur in the casual user, who experiments with MDMA a few times?  My own opinion is that it doesn’t, or that if it does occur to a small extent, that the axons resprout.   Does it occur in heavy MDMA users, who take the drug hundreds of times and take multiple doses on each occasion?  My opinion is that it probably does, but there is no present evidence even in this population that this use has led to loss of ordinary brain functions or has in any way compromised the quality of their lives, or that any subtle changes are irreversible.  In subjects who had abused alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine, or heroin hundreds of times and at multiple doses on each occasion, one would expect to see a high prevalence of addiction and dysfunctional lifestyle that is typically not seen in populations using MDMA.

MDMA did not just appear in the past few years.  The more toxic MDA has been available since about 1967, and MDMA made its first appearance in the United States around 1979, with use escalating through the mid 1980s.  What we are seeing today is a repeat of the widespread popularity of MDMA in the period 1983-1986.  As a result, there are many hundreds of thousands of former MDMA users who are now probably in their thirties, forties, and older.  There are no studies to suggest that a cohort of this population suffers from any unusual neurological problem.  If a neurological condition of a significant magnitude did exist, there should by now be large enough numbers of sufferers that it seems it ought to have been detected.

None of my comments are meant to imply that MDMA is a safe drug.  But on the comparisons of acute toxicity or ability to produce dependence, there is no similarity between MDMA and methamphetamine, cocaine, or heroin; MDMA is clearly very much less dangerous.