How a shakeup at the DEA could get you legal ecstasy

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A wave of scandals, from alleged government-funded “sex parties” in Colombia to a federal agent accused of a bitcoin heist, has pushed Michele Leonhart, the head of the Drug Enforcement Agency, into retirement.


Today, the Department of Justice announced that Chuck Rosenberg, currently serving as the chief of staff to the director of the FBI, is becoming the acting DEA administrator.

On the bright side, the shakeup—coupled with a surprising recent reversal of policy on MDMA, the chemical found in the club drugs Molly and ecstasy—has given glimmers of hope to a contingent that seems to be perpetually at odds with the DEA: those who want more testing on potential medicinal benefits of psychedelics and marijuana, and those pushing for overall drug policy change.


Leonhart was long seen by critics as a roadblock for both. With her out of the picture, some advocates argue, the path is clearing up for real reform in the DEA.

In April, just a month before Congress smacked Leonhart with a vote of “no confidence,” the DEA announced it had approved MDMA for clinical trials for the treatment of anxiety for the first time ever, seemingly backtracking on its long-held position that MDMA has "no legitimate medical purpose."

"This marks a big, big, moment," said Brad Burge, communications director for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), the group who got the MDMA trial approved, told Fusion.

"We've had some direct conflicts with the DEA with just about everything we have pushed for, from their refusal until very recently to approve MDMA research, to them actively blocking our attempts to develop marijuana into a federally legal prescription drug," Burge said.


For Burge and MAPS, a non-profit aimed at finding research for the medicinal uses of psychedelics and marijuana, the recent green light is the culmination of a 30-year fight to get the DEA's approval for scientifically rigorous testing of the drug's medical potential.

MDMA was listed as having "no legitimate medical purpose" in 1985, when it was listed as a Schedule I drug, despite some case studies suggesting that the drug showed promise for treating anxiety before that year.


Between the late 1970s and early 80s, a small handful of psychiatrists had been using MDMA—then an unregulated psychoactive chemical—to help treat patients with debilitating anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. According to some carly case studies, many of which have been compiled and published by MAPS, the drug was having a profound and positive effect on patient outcomes.

They're not the only ones saying the drug merits more research. In a small 2009 study on MDMA's effectiveness in treating traumatic anxiety, performed by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, researchers found that two months after treatment, "92 percent of [the twenty-two] MDMA patients had clinically significant improvement in their conditions: They were more open to therapy and were able to process the trauma."


"This was a small study," the researchers noted, adding that "it must be followed up by more."

No clinical trials have ever been held on its MDMA’s effectiveness. The Food and Drug Administration approved MDMA for clinical testing as far back as 2001, but the DEA's refusal to give its own approval stifled those attempts.


What’s more, critics say, the DEA under Leonhart has increasingly fallen out of step with President Obama and the country's evolving views on drug policy. Last year, she reportedly slammed Obama at a private event for suggesting marijuana is no more harmful than alcohol. She also suggested that her agency would continue going after marijuana, even in states that have legalized it, despite Department of Justice guidelines that said the feds should back off in those cases.

Finally, DEA agents under her control created a political firestorm when they seized 250 pounds of hemp seeds that were headed to Kentucky for a research program that was approved by Congress. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), then a minority leader, called the seizure "an outrage." Kentucky sued, and ultimately the DEA had to back down.


Calls and emails to the DEA and the DOJ went unanswered for this story.

"President Obama has an opportunity to make history by appointing someone who will support sentencing reform, face the reality of racial disparities, respect science, and work with leaders who want a new approach," recently wrote Bill Piper, director of national affairs of the Drug Policy Alliance, in an op-ed. The group is pushing for a wholescale reform of the agency.


Those are some of the same hopes that Burge, of MAPS, is pinning on Leonhart's permanent successor, whoever it might end up being.

"We hope the stigma of psychedelics and marijuana is eroding enough so that it stops being an issue with getting approval for basic studies, and ultimately so that we can actually start getting some government funding for some of that research," Burge said.


MAPS, by far the most prominent advocate group for medical testing of psychedelics, estimates it needs $20 million to fund all the necessary research in order to make MDMA a prescription drug. Its biggest grant to date came from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment — but that money is all going towards marijuana research.

Still, Burge predicts that MDMA will be available by prescription at your local pharmacy as soon as 2021.


"That number is holding steady," he said. "With the current political and cultural situation I only see things getting better."

Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.

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