By Emily Turner


MARIN (CBS SF) — Decades after the U.S. Federal Government banned the drug ecstasy — which in turn went underground, gaining notoriety as a party drug — a Bay Area medical team got special permission to study its therapeutic use in patients with life-threatening illness.

Now only on KPIX News, some of these patients talked about their experience.

We found them in Marin County. In the shadow of Mount Tamalpais, in a remote location, near the prayer flags, they met each other for the first time. It was like they were old friends.

“It’s wonderful, it’s really wonderful.” explained Wendy Donner.

In the living room, Donner joined two others: Andy Gold, and John Saul. They were all involved in a groundbreaking study.

“For me, I was thrilled because – I just – I couldn’t wait,” said Saul of the study.

Each one was legally given what’s still an illegal drug, and more than once.

“I had a little bit of trepidation taking it the first time,” said Gold.

“I went into that first real session and it like — blew me away,” said Donner.

The goal of the trial is to see whether a pure dose of the compound MDMA, also known as ecstasy, can be pure medicine: could it ease the crippling anxiety, fear, or depression felt by those suffering from a life-threatening disease? This is one of the studies now underway that’s overseen by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS for short.

All three of these individuals qualified by their misfortune of experiencing a traumatic diagnosis.

“In June 2014, I was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer,” explained Donner, who is married and the mother of two children. Donner endured a year of treatment that involved chemotherapy, surgery, and then reconstructive surgery.

Saul suffers from systemic sclerosis, or scleroderma. It’s a chronic autoimmune disease. The hardening of the skin is the most visible manifestation and there is no cure. It’s also very painful.

“It beats me up every day,” said Saul.

As for Gold, he was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2004.

“It’s a phone call you never forget,” said Gold, “when someone says you have cancer.” Gold also endured grueling treatments. At one point, he was told his cancer had recurred, but it was a false positive. The emotional roller coaster for all is excruciating.

They all heard about this trial and decided to give it a try.

“We see them probably like nobody else sees them,” explained psychotherapist and researcher Julane Andries.

“They know what they’re doing is not working… and they want to find something that will,” explained study coordinator Libby Heimler.

The lead investigator for this study is psychiatrist Phil Wolfson.

The medical doctor has permission from the U.S. FDA to conduct the study,  and legally administer the drug.

“The FDA approved so the DEA had to follow suit,” explained Wolfson.

Before the DEA declared MDMA illegal in 1985, Doctor Wolfson used it medicinally in his own practice and saw a tremendous benefit for patients..

He also took it himself during psychotherapy to help cope with the death and crushing loss of his son Noah.

Noah died of leukemia at the age of 17.

“So I knew personally its potential and I knew it as a therapist,” said Wolfson.

In the study, MDMA is not used alone. The use of the compound is combined with psychotherapy sessions that can last five hours or longer.

“It’s not this 50 minutes in and out, it’s these extended periods of real interactive exchange, “explained Gold.

“This was work, this was not partying,” added Donner.

Everyone experienced a profound benefit.

“With the MDMA, everything opened up,” recalled Donner.

“You start seeing things very, very clearly and at a nice slow pace, truths in your life are bubbling up. And revealed to you piece by piece,” explained Saul.

“It opens you up to yourself  and in the right conditions, in a protected environment with supportive people in a safe place, I think it’s a tremendous tool,” concluded Gold.


 

The participants all say they’ve changed and are better able to face the future, and they have no regrets.

Wolfson hopes the drug may one day be available to other patients as a legally accepted remedy.

The researchers are now screening for new study participants with about a dozen spots to fill. Everyone is carefully screened.

For info on new study participants in the Bay Area, contact Wolfson via email sf@mdmasites.org or call (877) 372-2692.

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