Whistleblower: “How The Government Funded Misleading Scientific Studies To Demonize MDMA”
An exclusive whistleblower testimony on deceptive government-funded psychedelic studies. MAPS founder Rick Doblin: “This is explosive and highly relevant.”
The public perception of psychedelic drugs has rapidly shifted over the past two decades. A wave of resurgent research beginning in the early aughts —demonstrating high levels of therapeutic efficacy — met with transcendent testimonies from cultural icons ranging from Joe Rogan to Megan Fox to Mike Tyson, has renewed interest in a society increasingly suffering from mental illness and the ‘meaning crisis.’
At a live event in Vancouver earlier this year, clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson described psychedelics as having “incredible potential to uplift people out of their misery.”
The astonishing resurrection of a nationally demonized class of drugs — now concerning some psychedelic clinicians about the over-sold hype of psychedelics as a ‘quick-fix’ — begs the question of why it was anathematized in the first place in the 60s and 70s. A number of factors — from the rising psychedelic subculture encouraging people to “drop out” of society to increasing federal regulations — drove the drugs underground.
The tumultuous history of the ‘heart-opener’ drug MDMA — the technically non-hallucinogen (it’s classified as an empathogen) to be inducted in the popular psychedelic umbrella — illustrates the pernicious power of top-down, government influence on scientific research, contributing to the crashing halt of a powerful therapeutic offering transformative healing to the most traumatized members of society.
Dr. Joseph Fraiman — a maverick physician recently emerging for his alarming peer-reviewed paper in the journal Vaccine showing a 1 in 800 rate of serious adverse events associated with the mRNA Covid vaccine — has revealed to the author of this piece for the first time, the stifling bias and perverse incentives working behind-the-scenes in MDMA research.
From 2005 to 2008, Dr. Fraiman worked on three published studies examining the behavioral and neurophysiological effects of MDMA on rats. In a 2005 study on “Repeated MDMA (‘‘Ecstasy’’) Exposure in Adolescent Male Rats,” Dr. Fraiman and his team put adolescents rats on an MDMA dosing paradigm designed to parallel the equivalent of humans taking four MDMA tablets every weekend for several consecutive weekends (heavy recreational use). This dosing schedule had previously caused neurotoxic effects in adult rats. Fraiman’s team found “minimal” neurotoxicity to the serotonin system and no long-term changes in anxiety and memory-related behaviors. The findings of the study were summarized by the authors as, “These results indicate that repeated exposure to a relatively moderate MDMA dose during adolescence produces later changes in behavior and neurochemistry.”
However, Dr. Fraiman stated the most striking finding of the study was deliberately obscured. “The finding of this study that we all thought was the most novel and unexpected is the adolescents were much more resistant to MDMA neurotoxicity than adults.” “This is counter to the general dogma of the fragility of the developing adolescent brain we commonly hear mentioned in reference to teen drug use,” added Fraiman. While they did accurately report the data, Fraiman revealed they “chose not to focus on this interesting and surprising finding as it goes against NIDA dogma.”
The lab Dr. Fraiman was working at as an undergraduate received much of their funding from The National Institute of Drug Abuse (which is under The National Institutes of Health). As he stated, “It was explained to me NIDA can decide to not issue us any more grants at anytime. If we publish the data and avoid angering the grant funder, we can continue to do research.”
Over the past forty years, The National Institute of Drug Abuse has funded hundreds of studies on MDMA’s adverse effects, including neurotoxicity. “For much of this time, NIDA has used this research to try to justify its opposition to clinical research into MDMA-assisted therapy, and to support the criminalization of MDMA,” Rick Doblin, the founder of MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), stated in an interview.
The most astounding example of flawed MDMA research funded by NIDA was the 2002 primate study lead by Johns Hopkins University researcher George Ricaurtepublished in the journal Science. It found two of the ten monkeys dosed with MDMA died following consumption of the drug and others also showed evidence of permanent brain damage. “The most troubling implication of our findings is that young adults using Ecstasy may be increasing their risk for developing parkinsonism, a condition similar to Parkinson’s disease, as they get older,” Ricaurte wrote in Science. The National Institute of Drug Abuse amplified these ominous findings to discourage popular MDMA usage in clubs and raves. Many researchers, such as Doblin, had much reason to be suspicious and skeptical of such dramatic findings but they were viewed as gospel by the scientific and medical establishment at the time.
There was only one problem: they administered the wrong drug. According to Ricaurte in his retraction, they unwittingly gave methamphetamine instead of MDMA due to the drug supplier (RTI International) mislabeling the vials.
However, as in most cases, the original sensational claims about MDMA’s neurological dangers caused more damage in public perception than the retraction could remedy. Public leaders and drug experts in power had already made up their mind.
In 2006, Dr. Fraiman worked on a second misleading study on MDMA administration in rats — this time giving multiple doses of MDMA during adolescence and again as adults — published in the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics. As Fraiman told me, “we all thought in our lab that the major finding of this study was that repeated MDMA exposure in adolescents prevented the neurotoxic effects of a high dose of MDMA as adults.” They did report this result in the paper, Fraiman said, but “it was not emphasized in the way it would’ve been had there been no concern for NIDA’s agenda.” Publishing such a controversial finding would inflame the powers that be and jeopardize the grant funding of Fraiman’s lab.
The financial incentive was clear: abide by NIDA’s drug orthodoxy and continue making a living or freely tell the full truth and go broke.
Many such research studies on MDMA harms funded by NIDA were weaponized by federal agencies to further advance their mission of demonizing MDMA. In 1986, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) emergency-scheduled MDMA as a Schedule I drug — ignoring its own judge’s decision to classify it as Schedule III — based on NIDA-funded neurotoxicity research in rats taking MDA, not even MDMA, which was heavily exaggerated.
“Over the next few decades, NIDA-funded MDMA neurotoxicity researchers argued against FDA approval of MAPS’ protocols on the grounds that MDMA was too dangerous to be given to humans,” Rick Doblin stated.
The last MDMA study Dr. Fraiman was involved in was the “Dissociation of the neurochemical and behavioral toxicology of MDMA (‘Ecstasy’) by citalopram” published in Neuropsychopharmacology in 2008. The concept of the study was to give rats citalopram (an SSRI) — shown to prevent the serotonin transporter neurotoxicity of high-dose MDMA in other studies — as a potential ‘neuroprotective’ compound and test various behavioral measures after administering MDMA. To Dr. Fraiman’s surprise, he found a single dose of citalopram reduced serotonin transporters 10 weeks later in rats, which “should not happen,” he says, “as it implies that SSRIs are causing long-term changes in the brain’s serotonin system, when the actions of a single dose of SSRI should be temporary and fully reversible.” Fraiman re-did the experiment to test if he had found a false-positive, but the same result emerged.
Given this shocking finding of a widely prescribed pharmaceutical medication causing serotonin damage in rats, Dr. Fraiman says he was “ready to throw the study away and repeat the experiment with citalopram alone.” However, he said “the head of my lab was worried if we did the study on citalopram alone the Pharma industry would destroy our lab, specifically he was worried about obtaining various pharmaceutical agents that are necessary for many of our studies. “
In the end, the study was published in a premier drug research journal, but without any emphasis or focus on the most striking finding. Doing otherwise would essentially be career suicide.
Fraiman’s experiences reveal the powerful influence federal agencies and pharmaceutical companies have on scientific studies. Most ordinary consumers take the medical establishment’s messaging on drugs, vaccines, and medications as gospel. However, most don’t know how the research behind such public recommendations are shaped and influenced by political and financial interests.
Psychedelic medicine advocates have been saying this for years, but Fraiman’s experience also shows how the biopharmaceutical complex has a drastically different standard for safety and efficacy for prescription drugs compared to politicized psychedelic drugs. SSRI prescriptions continue to soar with the blessing of the psychiatric establishment, while psychedelic therapies remain illegal.
“At present, MDMA is penalized more heavily than equal amounts of cocaine, based in part on now discredited NIDA-funded research,” Rick Doblin stated. “The cost of bias can be measured in delayed access to MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD, which the FDA has designated as a Breakthrough Therapy, and in inappropriately enhanced penalties and jail time.”
Fortunately, now the tide is turning. This September, Doblin’s team published their second phase three study on MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD patients in Nature Medicine. Congruent with prior trials, the study showed an astonishing 71% cure rate in the MDMA group compared to less than 50% in the placebo arm. Doblin’s six-month intensive protocol involving three MDMA sessions and rigorous psychotherapy before, in-between, and after the MDMA sessions have shown to be incredibly effective at curing PTSD.
Last week, MAPS has officially submitted a New Drug Application to the FDA for approval of MDMA-assisted therapy in 2024. No psychedelic treatment has progressed this far in the approval process. Doblin says he is confident the therapy will be approved next year.
While the government’s war on psychedelics has delayed potentially transforming therapeutic research for mental health disorders for several decades, we are entering into a new era where people gain greater access to once-anathematized medicines.
Originally published on Substack
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