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Will party drug ecstasy help terminally ill face death?

By wire services
Published December 28, 2004

WASHINGTON - The illegal club drug ecstasy can trigger euphoria among the dance club set, but can it ease the debilitating anxiety that cancer patients feel as they face their final days?

The Food and Drug Administration has approved a pilot study looking at whether the recreational hallucinogen can help terminally ill patients lessen fears, quell thoughts of suicide and make it easier to deal with loved ones.

"End of life issues are very important and are getting more and more attention, and yet there are very few options for patients who are facing death," Dr. John Halpern, the Harvard psychiatrist in charge of the study, said Monday.

The small, four-month study is expected to begin early next spring. It will test the drug's effects on 12 cancer patients from the Lahey Clinic Medical Center in the Boston area. The research is being sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a nonprofit group that plans to raise $250,000 to fund it.

MAPS, on its Web site, touted the study's approval, saying "the longest day of winter has passed, and maybe so has the decades-long era of resistance to psychedelic research."

The FDA would not comment, but this will be the second FDA-approved study using ecstasy this year. South Carolina researchers are studying the effects of ecstasy on 20 patients suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder.

As well, two U.S. studies are looking at the usefulness of psilocybin - the active ingredient in "magic mushrooms" - in terminally ill cancer patients and in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder. And in the coming year, advocates hope to submit to the FDA an application to test psilocybin and LSD as treatments for a debilitating syndrome known as cluster headaches.

Halpern, who has done other research on the effects of hallucinogenic drugs, said that some, when used properly, can have medical benefits. He said that unlike LSD, ecstasy is "ego-friendly," and unlike some pain medications it does not oversedate people.

Instead, he said, it can reduce stress and increase empathy. There are anecdotal reports, he said, of people dying of cancer who take ecstasy and they are able to talk to their family and friends about death and other subjects they couldn't broach before.

"I'm hoping that we can find something that can be of use for people in their remaining days of life," he said.

-Information from the Associated Press and Washington Post was used in this report.

[Last modified December 28, 2004, 00:24:09]

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