Ecstasy Was Named And Popularized By A Catholic Priest

“To have been happy, madame, adds to calamity.” —Beaumont and Fletcher, The Fair Maid of the Inn

In A Nutshell

MDMA, the active ingredient in ecstasy, has been around for almost 100 years. It was in use as a counseling tool for a large network of therapists in the ’70s, but was made illegal in 1985 after a fervent attempt by its strongest champion to bring it to the masses—Catholic priest Michael Clegg.

The Whole Bushel

For the first half-century or so after MDMA was first synthesized by German pharmaceutical company Merck, nobody had any idea what to do with it. Structurally similar to adrenaline, experiments were performed on animals with no conclusive results; the CIA, of course, invited MDMA to the MKULTRA mind control experiment party of the ’50s and ’60s, but the drug didn’t perform well there, either. Curious, chemist Alexander Shulgin whipped up a batch in 1965. Then it sat on his shelf for a couple years—it wasn’t until 1967 that he ingested some, and needless to say, he was surprised at the effect.

It wasn’t until almost 10 years later that Shulgin gave some to a psychologist friend, who thought it could have myriad applications in psychology (the friend, Leo Zeff, had been preparing to retire, but after trying MDMA, he decided not to). Slowly, over the next several years, a network of shrinks developed—about 4,000 of them—who used the drug regularly in their practices. They found it incredibly effective in removing emotional barriers; one called it “penicillin for the soul.” Some used it in marriage counseling sessions, others to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.

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The spread of MDMA in clinical settings went completely unnoticed by law enforcement until 1984. Of course, some had leaked out onto the streets, and it was in limited circulation as a party drug; that’s how it fell into the hands of seminary student Michael Clegg in the late ’70s, who says taking it was like “hearing Moses on the mountain.” Anxious for others to share the experience, he began giving it to friends, then selling it to cover his costs, then selling it for profit. But MDMA seemed too clinical, so he came up with a brand name: ecstasy. By this time, Clegg was a full-on Catholic priest.

By 1984, Clegg was moving tons of the drug to local nightclubs and had even set up a mail-order service with a toll-free number; his business had made him a millionaire. Of course, this finally made authorities sit up and take notice. By the following year, MDMA was illegal and classified as a Schedule 1 narcotic. By definition, this means it has no medicinal or therapeutic value—but tell that to the many patients whose lives it changed before its outlawing. It should, of course, be noted that these patients took it under supervision and that any drug can be incredibly harmful if used irresponsibly.

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