MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - It's known as 'ecstasy' or 'molly,' an illegal 'club drug' once popular at all-night dance parties, but researchers are finding MDMA could help war veterans and others suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The treatment, which involves intense psychotherapy, is currently the focus of four studies approved by the FDA, including one in Charleston. The drug is one step away from becoming legal, according to an investigation by WMBF News's Julie Martin.
"I got to Ft. Campbell Kentucky, and they said don't unpack you're on the plane. I was repair on Apache aircraft and I worked on avionics and armament systems," said James Hardin, who did three tours in Iraq from 2003 to 2010. "There was a lot of incoming mortar rounds, rocket rounds, what we're combating today known as ISIS, was al-Qaeda back then. Those are the same people we were fighting back then, pretty much daily we saw casualties, explosions, just war."
Hardin was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder while still serving overseas. "Essentially you just gave up on the idea that you're safe at any time, day or night, 24-7, 365. Unfortunately that switch never got shut off when I got back to the states."
Hardin describes a tormented life: he couldn't hold a job, socialize, or even hardly leave home. He says he became numb, and turned to drugs and alcohol for comfort when therapy with the VA failed to help.
"They pretty much threw every pill they could think of at me so at that point you really weren't feeling," Hardin said.
After seeing a snippet on the news, Hardin's girlfriend pushed him to reach out about an experimental treatment being studied for PTSD, one that involved MDMA - the pure form of a party drug known as ecstasy or 'molly' that has been illegal since the 1980s.
"Millions of people are suffering, 22 veterans are dying from suicide every day, so the idea of not looking at something that might help them just because others may abuse it doesn't make sense to me," Hardin said.
In 2010, under federal approval, Dr. Michael Mithoefer, a Charleston psychiatrist, began testing MDMA on two dozen cops, firefighters, and war veterans, including Hardin.
"Most of them had lots of different medications from the VA – some had therapy also." His approach: one dose of MDMA, a 125-milligram pill, along with 8 to 10 hours of intense psychotherapy and overnight monitoring. The drug, which has stimulant and hallucinogenic properties, is known to release serotonin and other 'feel good' neurotransmitters and hormones that promote feelings of euphoria and increased trust. The process is normally carried out for just three sessions, one month apart. That's three pills total.
"It's absolutely amazing that that small amount, essentially 375 mg, would be able to change my entire life," Hardin said, comparing his first treatment to running a marathon - physically and emotionally exhausting, but worth the work. "I don't think I'd be alive today, I didn't see any light at the end of the tunnel and I had constant suicidal thoughts."
Dr. Mithoefer had seen results before. In his first clinical trial, which began in 2004, he tested the treatment on women who had suffered sexual abuse and had PTSD for an average 19 and a half years; 83 percent of the women overcame their trauma and remained PTSD-free three years later.
Some fear legalizing MDMA, even for medical use, would open the door to more drug abuse. In 2011, about 10,000 people under 21 visited the emergency room for MDMA, though a third also had alcohol in their systems.
According to the national institute on drug abuse, ecstasy can increase blood pressure, heart rate, lead to overheating and dehydration. Dr. Mithoefer acknowledges the risks, but points out none of these cases happened under medical supervision.
"Yes there are risks to any drug and we need to distinguish between therapeutic use and use in an unsafe setting," Dr. Mithoefer said. "We picture it wouldn't be like a drug that you could write a prescription and get at the pharmacy, we think it would be approved for use in specialty clinics, kind of like the methadone clinic model."
It's been more than a year since Hardin wrapped up treatment; he's now in school studying avionics and engaged to be married in June. Like the vast majority of Dr. Mithoefer's patients, he no longer meets the criteria for PTSD.
"Instead of internalizing everything, I actually started to open up and perceive what was happening around me must have felt good, life-changing," Hardin said.
Hardin believes he's 'cured'. Mithoefer says 'maybe.'
"We're not saying we've finished proving it yet, but we're saying this is very promising," Dr. Mithoefer said. "It could help millions of people, but it needs to be researched carefully, and that's what we're doing."
The next step is to see if the benefits prove to be true in large-scale of FDA-approved studies, which could take place as early as next year. Once that data is turned over to the government, it is possible MDMA could become approved for medical use in the next few years.