“It’s hard to talk about MDMA without using cliches,” laughs Laura, who first used ecstasy during its late 90s, Gatecrasher and Fatboy Slim-propelled era. “But that initial time: I had the feeling that everything was as it should be. There were these uncontrollably exciting waves and I had a visceral reaction to electronic music. It felt like every layer of this song resonated. It had something to say.”
Unfortunately, after six to eight uses, the profundity of Laura’s molly experience changed. “That sense of exhilaration; of uncontrollable light in the world, wasn’t there anymore.” She had seemingly – to use the industry parlance – “lost the magic”.
She’s not alone: there are countless threads on Reddit, Bluelight, Erowid and other drug information forums regarding this affliction. Even Ann Shulgin, iconic co-author of drug bibles Pihkal and Tihkal, and wife of MDMA’s so-called godfather Sasha Shulgin, talked about losing her own magic. So how does this happen – and is it possible to retrieve once it’s gone? I spoke to the planet’s brightest MDMA minds to find out.
Matt Baggott has been publishing research on MDMA since 1999 and is now CEO of Tactogen, a corporation developing MDMA-like compounds for medicinal use. “We don't really know what causes the loss of therapeutic effects, or ‘loss of magic’,” he tells me over email. ”MDMA, especially in higher doses or when people take multiple doses in a night, can cause lasting decreases in serotonin, tryptophan hydroxylase – a key enzyme that makes serotonin – and serotonin transporter. These decreases may make it so that your brain is releasing less serotonin compared to dopamine, which may make MDMA feel less magical and more like a typical stimulant.”
Serotonin is spuriously known as the “happy hormone”, and one of MDMA’s greatest functions is to merrily light up the brain’s circuitry with this joy-creating neurotransmitter. The drug will also increase – at lower levels – the brain’s activation of adrenaline and dopamine. The former prepares you for stressful situations, thus making you alert, while the latter is associated more with motivation and reward. It’s the secret chemical sauce in cocaine and primarily why, for some users, buying a 6AM gram seems like a perfectly rational idea.
With Matt’s comment in mind, one might think that losing the magic is only for the long-term gravers – tired-looking men non-ironically shouting “aceeeeed” in Glastonbury’s Stone Circle and mistakenly telling anyone with a full complement of faculties that pills were better in their day. Not so.
Reddit user Szadof, 21, posted about losing the magic after around a dozen uses: “I never pushed myself with crazy doses, always kept it pretty safe. Never took more than 150mg per roll,” they wrote seven months ago. (For context: the recommended dose for MDMA in research studies is 125mg, followed by a booster dose of 62.5mg two and a half hours later.)
“I have tried taking MDMA in different forms since I posted on Reddit and none of it worked,” Szadof, real name Kubu, tells me over a Reddit DM. “It sucks really hard because all my friends are able to have fun at a party or rave, while I am the one forced to be sober or use other substances.”
Many of the commenters under Kubu’s post suggest prosaic explanations for the discontinuation of effects, most popularly that the drugs were poor quality. He suggests otherwise: “I tested every pill when I discovered molly around two years ago. I then purchased MDMA from reputable deep web vendors instead of street dealers.”
Rayyan Zafar is a PHD fellow at Imperial College’s Centre for Neuropsychopharmacology & Psychedelic Research. “When an individual first takes MDMA, their brains have never been used to the flood of serotonin that occurs at supra-physiological [i.e. greater than normal] levels,” he says. “This means that the feelings of euphoria, excitement and surprise are novel – and the rush of serotonin along with all the other neurotransmitters makes it an [especially] memorable experience. Some users describe [that] after this, the effects aren’t as strong.”
Kubu is adamant this placebo-like reaction isn’t the case for them, but it might explain losing the magic for some – as could the environment they took it in. Emanuel Sferios, the founder of harm reduction organisation DanceSafe, says: “I do believe a lot of people will say ‘this MDMA is no good’ when really what’s going on is that they weren’t in a good setting or mindset.”
He does caveat this, however, by saying that the importance of set and setting is more crucial with psychedelics like LSD and mushrooms, and that “MDMA has more of an ability to force you into a good mood”. He also says that “you have to distinguish people who lose the magic and people who don’t like the crash [AKA the comedown].”
Sferios estimates he has taken MDMA around 400 times since using it as a teenager in 1986. He lost it between 1995 and 2001, during which he rolled “semi-regularly”, before taking a complete break until 2009. The magic returned, only to vanish again in 2017. “I barely feel MDMA anymore,” he says, pointing out that he now experiences mild mood elevation and some stimulatory effects. “But it’s just not the same and not worth it.”
Curiously, Sferios adds that another recreational drug working in a similar vein – a research chemical called 5-MAPB that boosts serotonin – is highly effective for him. He describes it as “feeling even more like MDMA than MDMA does”. So what might be happening inside that brain of his?
After reviewing the available literature, Matt Baggott says of Sferios’s case: “The serotonin system should slowly recover if one stops MDMA use. For people whose brains have only partly recovered, MDMA may still not fully work, but other drugs, like 5-MAPB, might because they interact with the serotonin system in a slightly different manner compared to MDMA.”
“For example, these other drugs might cause less acute oxidative stress inside serotonin neurons or be less effective in causing serotonin transporter (SERT) to be removed from the surface of neurons. Factors like these could translate into relatively more serotonin release.”
So is there any data on how long it takes for the brain to recover? Baggott points to some 2021 research which suggests it could take around 500 days to regain its serotonin transporter (SERT) availability – although this is a rough estimate based on a comparison across studies and there is a lack of data on shorter times.
Should we be concerned that losing the magic is a sign of irretrievable damage? Rayyan Zafar doesn’t think so: “The consensus of the data in neurological and cognitive domains suggests that repeated use of ecstasy produces short to medium-term neurocognitive or neurophysiological changes that are subtle, and are potentially reversible over time.”
Zafar also points to the confusing effect of using more than one drug at a time, with alcohol and other sedatives like ketamine and benzodiazepines reducing the effects of MDMA while “cocaine can reduce the euphoric effects as the effects of dopamine swarm the emotional hubs of the brain and dilute the serotonergic [serotonin-related] emotional effects”.
One substance sometimes suggested by users seeking to rediscover the magic is Piracetam: a synthetic nootropic commonly used to treat myoclonus (AKA involuntary muscle twitching). Research has found it can also improve cognitive processes like learning and memory in healthy volunteers, and preclinical work in mice has suggested it could be effective in stimulating the effects of MDMA.
There is no prescribed Piracetam method but, according to a Reddit mega thread on the topic, there’s two typical schedules: either pre-loading smaller amounts (e.g. spreading out 2,400mg across a few days leading up to dropping MDMA) with a larger dose on the day, or a large “attack” dose (two to four grams) a few hours before hitting their first dab or pinger.
“Some people say this [Piracetam] works for them, but others have not reported success. We don't know why these might work,” says Baggott. Sferios says that his own experiment with Piracetam was not successful – and that he “remains skeptical” of the potential for it and other rumoured magic-retrieval supplements like NAC.
So what’s the best way of keeping the magic in the first place? “Lower doses, less often,” says Sferios, adding: “People taking 200mg then, another 200mg four hours later are definitely risking incurring greater neurotoxic risk.”
And if it does abandon you, you can always try waiting it out to see if it eventually returns. Or give Laura’s approach a go: “I sometimes take it but my expectations are recalibrated,” she says. “It’s like being in a long relationship – you’re not so much in love, but you have glimpses and it’s been replaced with something more rewarding. I still enjoy it.”