Our journalism needs your support! Become a member
The Bristol Cable

Dependent drinkers in Bristol are trialing MDMA therapy

The UK’s first ever clinical study using MDMA has started in Bristol, in a landmark moment for the use of psychedelic drugs in psychotherapy.


Approval for world-first trial marks massive step forward for research into psychedelics as medicine.

Illustration: Sean Cox

The UK’s first ever clinical study using MDMA has started in Bristol, in a landmark moment for the use of psychedelic drugs in psychotherapy.

After years of work to get the go-ahead, the trial is offering a small group of dependent drinkers from Bristol an eight-week therapy course including small doses of MDMA – the class A drug often known as ecstasy.

 “MDMA represents the greatest, most innovative advance in psychiatric prescribing in the last 75 years”

Research has already been done in the US into using MDMA to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with the aim to get the drug licensed as therapeutic medicine by 2021.

However, this is the world’s first ever study looking at if the drug is similarly beneficial for treating addiction. Candidates in contact with Bristol’s drug services are going on a detox and receiving a course of MDMA-assisted therapy.

Dr Ben Sessa, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist and senior research fellow at Imperial College London, who specialises in mental health and addiction, is leading the study.

“MDMA represents the greatest, most innovative advance in psychiatric prescribing in the last 75 years, and it’s an opportunity not be missed in terms of developing this as a clinical tool,” he tells the Cable.

MDMA has successfully been tested to treat PTSD, because the drug removes the patient’s fear response while leaving other faculties intact. This enables the patient to talk to a therapist about their trauma without fear, for possibly the first time in their life.

“If you are carrying around memories in your head of painful trauma that goes back to childhood, you often spend your whole life going there and avoiding it at all costs, whether that means becoming a heroin addict or an alcoholic or self-harming,” Sessa says.

“The rationale behind this study is that we know MDMA works with trauma and that people with alcohol dependence have high levels of trauma in almost all cases, so we’re putting two and two together here.”

The study, which is sponsored by Imperial College London and being run at a facility in the University of Bristol, has recruited daily dependent drinkers from Bristol drug services, who experience withdrawal when they stop drinking. After a detox of seven to ten days, instead of going into typical treatment like individual therapy or Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), they start an eight-week MDMA therapy course.

Eligible participants receive weekly sessions of psychotherapy, including two day-long sessions with MDMA, after which they stay in the treatment centre overnight and are closely monitored. Follow-ups at three, six and nine months will continue to assess the safety and tolerability of the drug, but also if the patients have relapsed or stayed dry.

If this initial ‘open-label’ study goes well, the next stage will be a further ‘double-blind’ study alongside placebos in a few years.

Addiction treatment ‘crying out for something new’

Sessa says he was driven towards studying MDMA after seeing how ineffective traditional psychiatric methods are for a large group of people and “particularly those whose mental health problems are due to trauma or childhood abuse”.

“Treatment papers over the cracks by treating the symptoms but doesn’t get to the heart of the patients’ problem, which is often trauma”

Currently, the rate of success for alcohol addiction treatment is extremely low. “We chose alcohol addiction because the current treatments for alcohol misuse disorder are very poor – the four-year relapse rate post detox is 80-90%, which is awful. After 100 years of modern psychiatry, is that the best we can do?” he asks.

“People stay in treatment for years and it papers over the cracks by treating the symptoms but doesn’t get to the heart of the patients’ problem, which is often trauma. This diagnosis is crying out for something new.”

However, therapeutic MDMA use isn’t totally new. In fact, its history goes as far back as the mid-70s, as therapists who had been using LSD in psychiatry moved onto MDMA, which, unlike LSD, was still legal.

“Some interesting research was done on trauma therapy in the early 80s, but then MDMA was banned,” Sessa says. “Of course banning drugs is a terrible way of managing them. The whole rave thing happened, MDMA became a recreational drug. All research stopped for 30 years.”

Only recently has research recommenced. “There really has been a reawakening in the last 10 years. People are calling it the psychedelic renaissance,” he says.

Examples of this renaissance are studies at Imperial looking at treating depression with psilocybin, which is found in magic mushrooms, and US scientists considering future research into using MDMA to treat eating disorders.

Restrictive drug laws

Even with this renewed momentum, the legal status of MDMA in the UK has made it difficult to get the study approved, which has taken three years.

“Once all the data is in, it will be impossible not to license this drug, because the medical profession won’t stand for it not to be”

“This is the UK’s first ever clinical study using MDMA. It’s been incredibly difficult, very expensive and has taken a lot of time and effort,” Sessa says.

“We had delays when having the drug manufactured and adequately tested to meet all the right standards, as well as in getting the necessary regulatory approval and getting a Home Office license.”

MDMA is a ‘schedule one’ drug – a regulatory category for substances that aren’t used as medicines – so it has to be tracked by the Home Office. Each site has to be inspected to acquire a license – from where it’s made, analysed and tested to where it’s encapsulated, administered and stored.

“There’s no doubt that schedule one drugs are much harder to study,” Sessa says, who is highly critical of the UK’s drug laws.

MDMA, also known as ecstasy, is officially a class A drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act – the most serious classification that also includes heroin.

However, Sessa describes MDMA as a “staggeringly safe” clinical medicine as opposed to the ecstasy tablets that are taken recreationally. Even the concerns about that is overplayed, Sessa says, because the number of deaths is very low considering the huge amount of use – 750,000 doses every weekend.

From edition 15, OUT NOW!

front cover of the edition 14thRead more from this edition.

The difficulties in getting this study up and running now mean future studies won’t have to jump through all the same hoops: “We’re trailblazing here and setting things up. I hope future studies will be much easier than this one.”

US researchers from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) are aiming to get MDMA licensed for psychotherapy for PTSD by 2021.

The drug is currently in the final stages of trials and was recently granted ‘breakthrough therapy designation’, by the US’ Federal Drug Agency (FDA), meaning it has a meaningful advantage over existing treatments for PTSD.

If a license is awarded for PTSD, MDMA could be used ‘off-license’ to treat other diagnoses in the UK, including addiction.

Sessa is optimistic. “Once all the data is in, it will be impossible not to license this drug, because the medical profession won’t stand for it not to be.”


Report a comment. Comments are moderated according to our Comment Policy.

  • A therapeutic medicine, not a drug. Lets get with the program people, and start actually HELPING people with trauma related disorders with some that WORKS.


  • please help me i would very much like to be part of this clinical trial, someone please contact me ill do anything i need help bad and i dont know who to turn to. Please atleast respond to me . Thanks


  • Hi I’ve been taking prescription medication for my PSTD for yours and I’m still not feeling well
    I would like to try mdma treatment


  • Monica do Amaral Graça

    Gostaria de participar do estudo clínico e fazer tratamento com MDMA. Como faço?


  • Dr Christina Bracegirdle PhD

    My adopted son (nephew by birth was born out of trauma and into an abusive home. When he was 9 his father killed his mother he went to live with other relatives but never settled and came to me at 15 in the most awful mess. Now 35 he still struggles to work and be accepted. Is there any chance that mdma therapy would help him? He has had all sorts of counselling over the years but he is still held by his past. As a counsellor myself I see this in him


  • Hello, my boyfriend is alcoholic and has been drinking for 20yrs. He’s 40yrs old, and has lots of past trauma which he copes with by drinking. He has tried to stop drinking about 5 times but the longest he’s done is 1mth. When he gets triggered he goes back to drink. Please can you let me know of any upcoming trials?


  • I have a friend whose diagnosed with PTSD, still having mental health issues. She gets sharp pains in her head, blacks out and cannot focus at all. Please can she be a part of this trail. Or who can I contact for her to be a part of this trail?


Post a comment

Mark if this comment is from the author of the article

By posting a comment you agree to our Comment Policy.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Related content

Healing is a justice issue: how can we radicalise the voluntary sector, amid a perfect storm of cuts?

When it comes to recovery from trauma, meeting people’s basic needs such as food, shelter, and physical safety is not enough. In an increasingly harsh environment, charities will need all their imagination and creativity to do more.

The gloves are on: the boxing charity helping young people bounce back

Photo essay: Empire Fighting Chance equips some of Bristol’s most marginalised young people with tools for survival and success

When words fail: Meet the Bristol group nurturing male musicians’ mental health

The Seed Sessions project combines counselling and music mentoring to help young men express themselves. We heard from its founder, one of the participants and a counsellor working with the group about the power of music as a therapeutic tool.

How talking clubs are getting Bristol blokes to open up and be vulnerable

I joined Talk Club and learned I can’t regulate my emotions. Then I got schooled by a therapist on toxic masculinity and dangerous role models. But how are you doing, out of 10?

Lost opportunities: are inquests failing to prevent future deaths?

Jess Durdy’s death followed clear failings by those charged with caring for her, her mother believes, but a coroner didn’t see it that way. Bereaved families, campaigners and lawyers say an opaque, inconsistent system needs change.

‘I was finally diagnosed with ADHD at 25. Would I have got this sooner if I was a boy?’

After years of being misdiagnosed and incorrectly medicated, Dolores has finally got an ADHD diagnosis. But how different could her childhood have been if she’d been diagnosed sooner, like boys often are?

Join our newsletter

Get the essential stories you won’t find anywhere else

Subscribe to the Cable newsletter to get our weekly round-up direct to your inbox every Saturday

Join our newsletter

Subscribe to the Cable newsletter

Get our latest stories & essential Bristol news
sent to your inbox every Saturday morning