Emanuel Sferios: This is the man who wants you to help legalise MDMA

He believes that the Class A substance could cure mental illnesses and wants to promote its "therapeutic benefits"

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The Independent Online

Emanuel Sferious has one mission: he wants to legalise MDMA. "The war on drugs has failed," the long-time activist says. And there are plenty of people who agree with him.

After launching his crowd-funded campaign to make MDMA: The Movie, Sferios was given $10,000 in just three days.

However, Sferios' campaign is about much, much more than the legal right to get mashed on a Friday night. There are, he explains, two thrusts. "There's medical MDMA, as we’re calling it and its therapeutic uses to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in veterans, and then harm reduction, a public health-based response to recreational use," he explains.

Most people who take the drug for the first time might do it at a rave. But not Sferios. "I actually read an article about it in Newsweek," he says. "This was in 1986, one year after it was made illegal. There were no issues at the time around adulterants or unsafe pills.

"I sought it out and did it with a friend of mine for therapeutic reasons, and it was very helpful for me. I may have done it half a dozen times over the course of a couple of years."

Having seen families in Oakland, California, torn apart by jail sentences for non-violent drug crimes and after discovering that Dutch authorities ran purity tests at music festivals, he found his calling.

Legal high

Sferios argues that the drug being criminalised has, ironically, made it more in demand than ever before. "MDMA was made illegal 30 years ago, and it’s more readily available today than it ever has been. There are more adulterants on the MDMA market than any other – it’s the most highly adulterated drug market in the world," he says. "People like it and they will take the risk to obtain it, even knowing that it might be fake.

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Shelley Goldsmith died in 2013 after taking the drug

"The drug war has created the situation, we have put young people into this position in our failed efforts to stop people altering their consciousness."

The case of Shelley Goldsmith, who died after taking MDMA, which is also known as Molly in the United States, has weighed heavy in his mind. The 19-year-old student died in August 2013 after taking the drug. Her parents back Sferios' campaign. In Britain, possessing MDMA can lead to a seven-year jail term, and supplying the drug to someone else can lead to an unlimited sentence.

Future aims

It might seem incredible to many people that a Class A drug which is linked to memory problems, as well as depression and anxiety, is being taken seriously as medicine, but Sferios predicts that the USA will legalise the drug for medicinal purposes by 2021.

"Even the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration are joining the studies now because the success rates of the studies over 83 per cent of the subjects no longer met the criteria for PTSD after two months," Sferios says. 

Other than the obvious risk of death as Goldsmith's case sadly highlighted, there's also the chance of experiencing a crippling comedown - the drug hangover that can leave users on their backs for days afterwards.  Is there any chance that the side-effects of MDMA could make people suffering mental illness feel even worse?

"There’s a medical protocol," Sferios explains. "It's a course of one to three sessions, with a therapist, in a controlled environment, and each session is one month apart. And there’s only been one bad reaction out of almost 100 – most people, when they’re given 125mg or less, spaced a month apart, do not experience adverse or negative comedowns."

While Sferios is keen to stress that taking MDMA can be very risky, he explains that it's often the way people take it - in small "bumps", at the weekend - that can heighten the already considerable risk factor.

"The protocols for the use of the drug were established in the late Seventies by the therapeutic community who had first used it before it was ever used as a party drug," he explains. "The doses were between  80 and 125mg and, like a psychadellic, you take your initial dosage and you have your trip, which involves coming up, a plateau and coming down. "

Adulterated market

But, he explains that most of the MDMA now available is in loose powder and cut with methylone "bath salts" and people don't know how much they're taking - or, more dangerously - what they're taking. "The bath salts are closer to a cocaine or an amphetamine-type drug. People now take MDMA more like cocaine, and take little bits all night. With MDMA, that not only doesn’t work, but it’s not good. You’re not going to have the experience that most users want. Of course, most users have no idea how much they’re taking - the drugs have binding materials, and the MDMA content is quite low, so they take another pill and you’re getting up to maybe the 300mg area and you’re going to have more side-effects, and you’re going to be at risk of overdosing."

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Emanuel Sferios set up charity DanceSafe in 1999

As a parent, would Sferios recommend his teenage stepdaughter take pure MDMA at the weekend if she could obtain it? Categorically not. "I’m as concerned as anyone about drugs in our society," he says. "I don't think drugs should be widely available and anyone should be able to get them if they want to.

"The prohibition that is currently in place means free-market, anyone can make anything they want. We need to decriminalise and regulate MDMA precisely because then we can control them. We can set up ways to make minors less likely to be able to obtain these drugs, while simultaneously giving adults the ability to obtain pure, standardised drugs for their personal consumption if they want."

Pros and cons

However, it makes sense to Sferios that the "benefits" of drugs are publicised along with the drawbacks. "Because if we don’t tell young people about the benefits, they’ll never believe us about the risks," he says. "Teenagers have strong bullshit detectors, and they often don’t believe what's written on government advice websites. Ultimately, we need to win the trust of people."

For more information about the effects of MDMA, please visit the NHS page and the Frank website.

Frank points out that ecstasy and MDMA use is linked to liver, kidney and heart problems, and that evidence suggests that long-term users can suffer memory problems and may develop depression.

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