Hurdles Keep Street Drugs Out of Medicine Chest

From marijuana to ecstasy, scientists fight to study drugs' medical properties.

ByABC News
September 10, 2008, 6:14 PM

Sept. 11, 2008— -- The patients at Dr. Michael Mithoefer's clinic in South Carolina all suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Some are the victims of rape and child sexual abuse, others -- veterans returning home from Iraq -- bear the psychic scars of war.

They have tried other therapies before but here, under the watchful eye of Mithoefer and his staff, they're trying something new -- MDMA, better known as ecstasy, a drug that if bought on a street corner would land these patients in jail.

The results of the Mithoefer study -- the first Food and Drug Administration-approved Phase 2 trial of MDMA to treat post-traumatic stress -- will not be known until it concludes later this month. But the treatment already shows promise, the doctor says.

"We have had some very dramatic results," Mithoefer said. "We have examples of people on disability for years who have now returned to work. The treatment has had a profound effect on a number of people whose symptoms are now much better. It hasn't been that way for everybody but, overall, this seems to be much more effective than what is currently out there."

Like an ex-con trying to clean up his act and leave behind his criminal past, illicit drugs have a hard time shaking off their bad reputations. Many illegal drugs such as MDMA and marijuana could have pharmacological futures. Others such morphine and cocaine were initially developed for medicinal purposes, and some can be found in your medicine cabinet masquerading under assumed names. But scientists looking to do new research say it is difficult to get funding or approval for studies on drugs with rap sheets.