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.
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 peoples 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.
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.
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.
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
doesnt, 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.