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What Is Ecstasy?


Updated September 08, 2012

What Is Ecstasy?

An example of ecstasy pills. The colour, size and imprint on ecstasy tablets varies across batches.

Image © Farmer Dodds, Flickr

Ecstasy, or 3, 4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), is an illegal recreational drug, typically taken as a stimulant in situations involving music and dance. First synthesised in 1912 by the Merck pharmaceutical company, in Darmstadt, Germany, it was patented in 1914. Contrary to popular belief, it was not intended as an appetite suppressant, but as an intermediate chemical for the preparation of other pharmaceuticals.

Ecstasy was one of several drugs tested in a miliary context decades later. Later still, it was resynthesised, first by Gordon Alles, then by Alexander Shulgin, who tested it on himself, his wife, and his friends. He went on to develop a range of new compounds, with varying effects and risks, including MDA and PMMA, many of which end up as versions of street ecstasy today. It was many years after this that MDMA eventually appeared on the streets as a recreational drug.

Ecstasy was briefly explored as a therapeutic drug, as some psychotherapists believed it opened people up, and enhanced their potential for empathy and understanding of each other. This use was interrupted by the criminalization of MDMA, and the view that ecstasy can reliably enhance the therapeutic process has now fallen out of favour in the psychotherapeutic community.

An earlier version of ecstasy, MDA, became popular as a recreational drug among hippies in the 1960s, and spread to the gay scene in the 1970s, with MDMA appearing in the 1980s, when it became fashionable on the Acid House nightclub and rave scene.

However, due to concerns about the health risks associated with ecstasy, it was made illegal in the United Kingdom in 1977, way ahead of its popularity in that country, and it was made illegal in the United States in 1985, when its popularity there was on the increase, at which time it was classified as a Schedule 1 drug according to the Controlled Substances Act. For a few years, different versions of ecstasy were synthesized in an attempt to circumvent the law, which was the basis of the designer drugs movement. This was eventually outlawed, but re-emerged as a problem in the 2000s with the popularity of homemade crystal meth.

Despite a number of high-profile deaths associated with ecstasy use, and the illegal status of the drug, a sub-culture of ecstasy users have continued to use the drug, mainly in the nightclub, rave, party and festival scenes.


Collin, C. and Godfrey, J. Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House. New York: Serpent's Tail. 1988.

Johnson, D. Meth: The Home-Cooked Menace. Hazelden: Center City, MN. 2005.

Stevens, J. Storming Heaven. London: Paladin. 1989.

Pronunciation: ek-stas-EE
Also Known As: 3, 4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, E, Adam, Eve, XTC, Mellow Drug of America, MDA, MDMA, PMMA, MDEA,
Alternate Spellings: exstasy, XTC
Common Misspellings: ekstasy, ecstacy, ecstacey, ecstasea
John started taking ecstasy in a nightclub he attended every weekend.
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