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What’s the difference between MDMA and MDA?

“I’ve just finished Year 12 and you gave us a talk today about leaving school and some more drugs, and it made me really think about what drug choices I was making. My question for you is, what is the actual difference between MDA and MDMA? Do they both ‘trip you out’? I really just don’t understand the difference. Please help explain!”

Thanks for your question and I’m glad my talk made you think – I couldn’t ask for more! I’ve been asked many times by regular ecstasy users about the difference between these two substances as they are often offered MDA as an alternative to MDMA (the drug ecstasy users are after when they buy ecstasy). It needs to be said right at the start that the chances of the person selling the drug actually knowing what it really is are pretty slim. The only way you can really know what it is that you are buying or selling is if you made it yourself (and even then it could be difficult unless you’re a pretty amazing chemist, and if you know people who are actually making drugs like ecstasy, I would suggest you’re hanging out with a pretty dangerous crowd!) or if you had it tested by a laboratory (which you are unable to do in this country).

MDA has been around for as long as MDMA and is possibly one of the least understood drugs around – certainly there is a lot of mythology about what it is and its effects. It tends to appear on the scene in cycles, particularly when ecstasy quality starts to drop. Users start to complain that “the pills aren’t working” and all of a sudden dealers will begin to offer an alternative – MDA. It usually comes in capsules or powder form to note a ‘point of difference’ from pills and became particularly popular in the mid 90s to overcome the perceived ‘heavy’ effect of the ecstasy taken at that time.  At that time users believed that MDA gave you extra energy and kept you going no matter how the ecstasy affected you! So there have been times when it has been sold for its stimulant effects …  At other times it is sold as a ‘more lovey’ drug, i.e., you’ll get more of an ecstasy-type of effect, or as you suggest to “trip you out”. So what is MDA and is it majorly different to MDMA?

MDA and MDMA are from the same ‘family’ of drugs, with MDA having properties similar to those of both LSD and amphetamine. In fact MDA was the original ‘love drug’ until the emergence of MDMA as a street drug in the 1980s. There are no approved medical uses for MDA. It was
patented in 1956 as a cough suppressant and in 1961 as a diet aid, although there is no evidence that it was ever used for these purposes.
In terms of effect, MDA appears to more similar to LSD than amphetamine, i.e., it has more of a hallucinogenic effect. Some of the perceived positive effects at moderate doses include intensification of feelings, visual hallucinations or psychedelic-like visual effects, spontaneous recalling of events long past and a belief of greater awareness and self-insight.  On the other side of the coin, adverse effects include confusion, fatigue and anxiety.

What makes MDMA so attractive to some people is its effect on serotonin release causing its unique entactogenic effects (i.e., users wanting to touch, be close to and communicate with others). MDA has similar pharmacological effects and so users usually report similar experiences. There has been no research comparing the effects of these two drugs on humans, however the major differences reported by those who have used the two drugs are as follows:

  • MDA effects last for longer
  • MDA users report more stimulant and hallucinogenic effects
  • MDA has less entactogenic effects – the effect that ecstasy users are usually looking for

is important to note that MDA has been linked to some deaths, usually from seizures, hyperthermia or heart problems, possibly due to the stimulant effect of the drug. These deaths are rare but they do happen.

My greatest concern when I hear young people ask about the differences between drugs like MDMA and MDA is that they actually believe that the person selling them the drug actually knows what it is that they’re offering! There is no way they could really know, no matter what they tell you and how convincing they are! They could certainly make an educated guess but that’s about it …

This highlights one of the major problems with illicit drugs – street drugs can contain a variety of substances, some harmless and others lethal, you simply never know what you are buying! Certainly it is important to try to find out as much about the drug you think you are buying and planning to use – but you must always have at the back of your mind that there is no way you could ever actually know what it is that you are putting into your mouth or up your nose or whatever (and even if you did, there is no certainty that something couldn’t go wrong!) … with that in mind, be aware that as soon as it doesn’t feel right, seek help immediately!

First published: July 2015

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