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MDMA as Medicine? A New Film’s Controversial Look at the Popular Party Drug

“This is important stuff” says the man behind MDMA The Movie

Starting an honest conversation about drugs can be difficult. That's where Emanuel Sferios steps in. As a rave activist who once founded drug safety and harm reduction organization DanceSafe, Sferios is no stranger to awkward chats about MDMA. Though he left DanceSafe over a decade ago, he recently designed the website for Amend the Rave Act, a non-profit founded by Dede Goldsmith, a mother who lost her daughter to a drug-related incident at a Dada Life show in 2013. Like DanceSafe and Breakline, Goldsmith's group doesn't deal in scare tactics of anti-drug advocate but rather opts for intelligent dialogue about real problems backed by scientific information. It's no surprise someone like Sferios would be involved. His own unique experiences with drug issues are the basis for his first feature film, the forthcoming MDMA The Movie.

"This will be the first comprehensive and truthful documentary on MDMA, exploring the history and cultural impact of this unique drug," Sferios tells THUMP. "This is important stuff, a cultural and sociological phenomenon that most people simply don't know about. Most people have no idea that MDMA prohibition has led to an explosion in ecstasy knock-offs, and the public doesn't realize that most young people who consume these drugs are doing so accidentally."

The film's aim is to honestly and loudly educate on the realities of the recreational use of MDMA but also-perhaps controversially-it explores the drug's medical benefits too. Sferios is no stranger to controversy surrounding MDMA having first encountered the popular rave drug through his work with DanceSafe. "Our services included testing ecstasy pills, both on-site at raves and festivals, as well as a laboratory testing program where users could send in a pill anonymously," Sferios says. Those pill testing services still make DanceSafe an unwelcome presence at many events, a problem Sferios contended with during his tenure at the non-profit. But it was precisely that struggle that has informed his view of MDMA and how the rest of the world sees it.

"We've had four film shoots so far," Sferios says. "I've interviewed two veterans and a rape survivor who participated in the the MAPS [Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies]-funded, FDA-approved studies using MDMA to treat posttraumatic stress disorder. One veteran, Scott Hudek, self-administered MDMA and claims MDMA saved his life."

Sferios says he also also filmed a group of seven people at small house party in LA while they took MDMA. Perhaps the greatest get for MDMA The Movie so far is a conversation with Alexander Shulgin, the scientist known both as Sasha and the Godfather of Ecstasy, who died last year at age 88, along with his wife, the writer and drug researcher Ann Shulgin. "That interview was an immense privilege," Sferios says. "Even with Sasha's failing health, they both radiated so much love and authenticity. The entire film crew was glowing after the interview."

Those hoping for a film about partying might be disappointed as the filmmaker has been forced to grapple with stark realities of life, death and the aftermath of loss. "What I learned interviewing all the subjects-and it's something I had never realised-is that PTSD is integrally related to their sense of self, to guilt and their perception of themselves," Sferios explains. "Whether it was killing innocent people accidentally or failing to save the lives of fellow soldiers, their PTSD involved them not being able to forgive themselves."

Beyond the military community Sferios met with Rachel Hope, a mother in her thirties who has endured posttraumatic stress after internalizing and reliving a violent sexual assault she survived as a child. "It was to the point where she believed there must be something wrong with her for these horrible things to have happened," Sferios explains. "She carried this negative self image around with her for years."

"In all the cases [MDMA therapy] helped these people by giving them compassion for themselves, and allowing them to see themselves in a new light," Sferios adds.

Sferios stresses that each of these patients were in care of therapists and trained prescribers who knew exactly how to regulate the drug's dosage. Thus, medical MDMA users avoid the comedown effects many recreational users are familiar with, particularly those who use "too often and in too high doses." Though that's not to say recreational pill poppers won't experience any benefits either.

"I've seen recreational users obtain great therapeutic benefits from the drug" Sferios asserts. "I'm not judgmental of folks who use MDMA for the pleasurable feelings it can give, or the fun social experiences it can engender. However, in virtually all cases, MDMA loses its pleasurable effects with overuse. So if that's the only reason you want to use it, you're going to end up disappointed in the end. Better to get the message MDMA has to offer, and then hang up the phone and move on."

MDMA the Movie is on Twitter.

Angus Harrison is also on Twitter.