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  • Writer's pictureRob & Shannon

Interview With Dr. Shannon Hughes and Dr. Robert Colbert: Is MDMA Useful for Couples?

This interview comes from the Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry blog, originally published here last year. In it, Shannon and Rob (owners of An Enduring Love Therapy) talk about their research on adult couples who use MDMA recreationally for relationship enhancement, and about what drew them each to this work. We hope you enjoy this re-issue!

Our article explores the use of MDMA (also called Ecstasy or Molly) among couples taking it in the privacy of their own homes for relationship enhancement. MDMA is being tested in clinical trials as a breakthrough treatment for PTSD, but this article investigates its uses outside of the therapist’s office, and too, outside of the recreational party scene that the drug is often associated with. Couples described preparing for their “evening with Molly” through modifying their physical space, communicating their intentions and hopes for the experience, and taking care of their health (e.g., eating healthier, avoiding alcohol) in the days leading up to their MDMA use. Couples further described durable positive impacts on their relationships, including improved communication, enhanced intimacy, and providing a relationship “tune up” when things felt stagnant or stuck. Couples’ MDMA use suggests that non-problematic adult use of the drug is possible outside of clinical settings.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your research interests.

Dr. Shannon Hughes: I have been a researcher and educator in Social Work for over a decade with a focus on how we use drugs and medicines in our society today. As a researcher, I seek to improve best practices around how psychotropic drugs are prescribed, assessed, and monitored in mental health practice, and empower people with lived experience of mental distress in reclaiming the power to define their own stories and their own paths forward, which may or may not include psychotropic drugs. My research lab at CSU, the Alternatives for Mental Health and Healing Lab, aims to advance holistic, person-centered, and cutting-edge behavioral health alternatives founded in the synthesis of research evidence, innovative thinking, and community partnership. As an educator, I have developed and delivered curriculum for professional social workers, counselors, and administrators on the topics of safety and efficacy of psychoactive substances used in mental health care, shifting paradigms of drug use, and roles of helping professionals in supporting empowered relationships with psychoactive substances. Outside of my academic and professional life, I find balance in the mountains of Colorado and regular travel to places with coastlines and beaches.

Dr. Robert Colbert: I am a social artist who utilizes creative creative artistry within networks of advocates and community members who strive to enact meaningful, lasting social change as it relates to how we use drugs and medicines. In my private psychotherapy practice, he works with clients as a steward for discovery, and to empower change in people’s lives by exploring relationships, identities, and choice points which encourages lasting personal transformations. As a researcher, my primary interest is the discovery of hidden groups and social networks of substance users, with a focus on exploring the lived experiences and complex interactions which exist within our substance-using communities. Outside of my professional life and community organizing, I appreciate the Colorado outdoors and spending time with friends enjoying live music and dance.

Together we are some of the founding members of the The Nowak Society, 501c3, a Colorado-based non-profit providing community education and professional organizing around psychedelics and drug policy reform. We also offer workshops and training to therapists and helping professionals seeking to expand their practice into the emerging field of psychedelic-assisted therapies. We believe that, as exciting as the present psychedelic renaissance is, we must not forget the numerous harms done by decades of prohibitionist drug policies and the propaganda of the Drug War. Critical thinking here requires that we understand our history, bring attention to power, and anchor into our ethics and values.

What drew you both to this project?

MDMA has so many potential therapeutic applications – such as for trauma work and PTSD, eating disorders, social anxiety, autism spectrum disorders, and more – but it also has a very interesting history of use recreationally in the PLUR (Peace, Love, Unity, Respect) and rave culture of the early 90’s and through to today. Drug War fear-mongering painted MDMA as a dangerous drug that would take ice-cream scoops out of your brain, leaving you forever damaged and broken, so it was kept underground and deviant for a long time. We now know, of course, that much of the research at the height of prohibition was skewed and flawed in a way to inflate the dangers of MDMA, but the “dangerous drug” story sticks in our minds. With MDMA nearing completion of Phase III testing for FDA approval, I think most people will easily find it agreeable to open up drug access through a doctor, under tightly controlled and supervised conditions because, we assume, MDMA is otherwise still a dangerous drug. In the spirit of critical thinking and unpacking cultural remnants of the Drug War, we thought it would be interesting to seriously investigate other less explored applications of MDMA.

Outside of the clinic and outside of the rave music scene, we knew there were individuals using MDMA quietly in their own homes, without supervision or therapeutic support, to improve their intimate relationships. We were curious what their use looked like, how they decided to use MDMA and how they prepared themselves for it, what benefits they experienced, and what safety issues or adverse effects they experienced. We thought this line of inquiry might hold implications for present drug policy reform discussions where stakeholders debate the merits and limitations of medicalization, legalization, and decriminalization as different paths forward for MDMA and other psychedelic drugs.

What was one of the most interesting findings?

What was most interesting about our interviews with couples was how thoughtful and deliberate they were in curating their MDMA experiences – including, planning the details of how they would spend the evening together, being sure they were mentally and emotionally ready to be fully present with their partner for the MDMA experience, and taking time following the experience to slow down and revisit the discoveries they made through the experience. One couple described it as “conscious use” of MDMA. We believe this speaks to a potential new model of drug use that opens up possibilities for how we might engage our relationships to drugs. It is not escapist drug use or drug use that creates harm or dysfunction in users’ lives. Neither is it supervised use for treating a mental health condition. It is something else entirely, and if taken seriously, might serve to counteract the cultural baggage of the Drug War by giving us alternative paths toward engaging informed, non-problematic, healthful adult drug use.

What are you reading, listening to, and/or watching right now?

Dr. Shannon Hughes: I am reading “Saving Our Own Lives: A Liberatory Practice of Harm Reduction” by Shira Hassan and “The Mind and the Moon: My Brother’s Story, the Science of our Brains, and the Search for our Psyches” by Daniel Bergner. Also listening to the audiobook, “A Fierce Heart” by Spring Washam. Oh, and I am obsessed right now with Tyson Yunkaporta's book, SandTalk.

If there was one takeaway or action point you hope people will get from your work, what would it be?

We are steeped in baggage from the Drug War and from a highly medicalized system of mental health care that requires people to defer to western-trained medical authorities to understand the nature of their suffering and which drugs are okay to take for it. From my collective body of work, I hope people will begin to interrogate for themselves taken-for-granted concepts, as simple as “what is medicine?”. We each must do the work of de-colonizing our own minds on the subject of drugs and medicines. For example, Do I believe that some substances are good and others are bad? Where do those beliefs come from? What is medicine – is it a pharmaceutical product only prescribed by a doctor? Is food medicine? Water? And as we enlarge our concept of what is medicine for people, then we can also ask the question: Who owns this medicine? Who owns healing? Who should have rights to access this and how?



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