The Main Differences Between MDA And MDMA

The Main Differences Between MDA And MDMA

Both MDA and MDMA belong to the phenethylamine class of drugs. This category also includes psychedelics like mescaline and 2CB. The chemist Alexander Shulgin, known as the “godfather of ecstasy“, actually first started synthesizing molecules like MDMA after trying mescaline. He described the process of synthesizing various phenethylamine compounds (and his experiences with them) in the book PiKHAL (1990), which stands for Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved.

Both MDA and MDMA have a phenethylamine backbone. This is a molecule containing a hexagonal ring of carbons — a “benzene ring” — to which is attached a side chain, made up of two carbon atoms and an amine group (a nitrogen attached to two hydrogen atoms). Phenethylamine occurs in nature, such as the human body, in small amounts. It is a stimulant in humans.

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As phenethylamines, MDA and MDMA share similarities. Like other phenethylamines, they have stimulating effects. Also, in chemical structure, the compounds are quite similar, so their effects can resemble each other in many ways.

However, there are many crucial differences between MDA and MDMA, which you should be aware of.

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MDA And MDMA Are Known By Different Names

MDMA is known by different names, depending on the country the user is from. It is also called ecstasy, molly, E, X, pingers, and the love drug. Some people also call MDA the “love drug” — but its more common names are Sally, Sass, and Sassafras.

These names refer to the fact that MDA, like MDMA, comes from the oil of the sassafras plant in the illicit manufacturing of the drug.

The Chemical Difference Between MDA And MDMA

Let’s begin with the most obvious difference between MDA and MDMA: the chemical structure. MDA is 3,4-Methylenedioxyamphetamine while MDMA is 3,4-Methyl​enedioxy​methamphetamine. MDA, then, lacks the methyl group that MDMA has, which is attached to the nitrogen atom.

In a chapter in Julie Holland’s 2001 book Ecstasy: The Complete Guide, renowned chemist David Nichols writes the following.

“The methyl group does not profoundly change the chemical properties or the base strength of MDMA when compared with MDA. It does have consequences in terms of the biological effects, however. First, adding a methyl group to the nitrogen atom makes the molecule more lipid (fat) soluble. This means that because the brain is made largely of lipids, MDMA has a greater solubility in brain tissue. In general, drugs that have greater solubility in lipids and an action in the brain also have a faster onset of action but a shorter duration of action. Based only on this observation, one could predict that MDMA should produce its effects faster than MDA but have a shorter action than MDA. This is in fact what is observed.”

Nonetheless, the chemical difference between the two drugs does not result in only this variation in effects.

Nichols adds that the MDMA molecule is, “too large to fit comfortably into the brain serotonin 5-HT2A receptor that is responsible for LSD-like actions. That receptor is only minimally activated by MDMA; hence MDMA lacks significant LSD-like effects.”

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MDA And MDMA Have Different Subjective Effects

Both MDA and MDMA are empathogens or entactogens. This means they tend to induce feelings of empathy, emotional openness, close interpersonal connection, and affection. Yet they are not empathogens to the same degree.

Moreover, as Nichols already states from the quote above, MDMA is not very psychedelic in nature. This contrasts with MDA, which has more psychedelic effects.

Let’s now summarize the main differences between the subjective effects of these two drugs.

MDMA Is More Empathogenic Than MDA

Many people find that MDMA offers a more empathogenic experience than MDA. This means when you take MDMA, you are more likely to have the following.

  • A “loved up” feeling, which can make you feel close to — and affectionate toward — people (including total strangers)
  • Feelings of sociability and talkativeness
  • Open, honest, and heartfelt conversations with others
  • Empathy toward others

MDA Is More Psychedelic Than MDMA

Due to the fact that MDA can more easily bind to 5-HT2A receptors, as Nichols points out, this drug tends to have more psychedelic effects compared to MDMA.

Most noticeably, MDA is more likely to produce visual effects. These include the below.

  • Visual acuity enhancement
  • Color enhancement
  • Tracers
  • After images
  • Seeing geometric patterns
  • Visual hallucinations (in high to heavy doses)

The American chemist and pharmacologist Gordon Alles first discovered the psychoactive effects of MDA on July 16, 1930, when he ingested the drug as a form of self-experimentation. He describes the following visual effects.

“Forty-five minutes after the second dosage, an abundance of curling gray smoke rings was readily observed in the environment whenever a relaxed approach to subjective observation was used. Perceptually, these had complete reality. It seemed quite unnecessary to test their properties because it was at the same time surely known and fully appreciated that the source of the visual phenomena could not be external to the body. Concentration of attention on the details of the gray curling forms, by trying to note how they would be affected by passing a finger through their apparent field, caused them to melt away with the fixing of attention.”

MDMA can have visual effects, but you would need a higher dose to experience them. Many users also find that the MDMA experience becomes more psychedelic when combining it with cannabis.

However, you should be aware that this combination may also lead to confusion, anxiety, paranoia, and a state of mind known as “goldfish memory”. This is where someone ends up forgetting what they are talking about or what they meant to be doing.

MDA Is More Stimulating Than MDMA

Another difference between MDA and MDMA is that many people find the former to be more stimulating, providing them with greater energy levels. So while MDMA can make you feel content to sit comfortably, talk with others, and listen to music, MDA may make you want to move around and dance more.

This is how many people view MDMA, especially when in the form of pills at clubs. These pills may also contain speed (amphetamine), which has strong stimulating effects.

The Effects Of MDA Last Longer Than Those Of MDMA

Nichols underscored one important difference between MDA and MDMA: the effects of the former tend to last longer than the latter. An MDMA experience can last 3-6 hours, whereas an MDA experience can last 5-8 hours. For this reason, when taking MDA, be sure to prepare for a longer experience.

The difference in duration between MDA and MDMA also means you may not need to redose if you take MDA.

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Therapeutic Applications

Due to its strong empathogenic effects, MDMA can be useful as a tool in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Patients with PTSD often have underlying trauma(s) that can be incredibly difficult to confront. These patients may have triggers that can cause memories of the trauma to resurface, leading to states of extreme distress.

For this reason, patients may avoid situations that may trigger their traumatic memories, which can end up impairing their ability to function and engage in normal activities. Traumatic memories can also manifest in the form of nightmares.

MDMA can help people with PTSD and treatment-resistant PTSD (where no other treatments have proved effective), as the drug can reduce anxiety and lower people’s defenses. The drug also allows patients to examine their traumatic memories with reduced fear, as well as speak openly about them and feel increased empathy toward themselves.

Finally, MDMA also heightens levels of oxytocin (the “love hormone”), with many believing it to be responsible for the prosocial and emotional bonding effects of the drug. This can help a patient trust a psychotherapist and be open to discussing their trauma with him or her.

Due to the effectiveness of MDMA therapy, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted Breakthrough Therapy designation for this treatment. This is a recognition that the drug may provide more substantial improvements for patients with a serious condition than available therapies.

This designation is also designed to speed up the development and review of the drug treatment. MDMA therapy is predicted to be legal by 2023.

In contrast, MDA is not being scientifically investigated as a tool for psychotherapy. In the 1960s, researchers like Claudio Naranjo, Richard Yensen, and Shulgin believed that MDA could facilitate psychotherapy. And studies in the 1970s did, indeed, find that MDA-assisted psychotherapy could reduce depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive traits in neurotic patients.

However, MDA-assisted psychotherapy has not been studied and promoted like MDMA therapy has been in the past decade.

This is not to say that MDA cannot produce therapeutic and meaningful experiences. Many anecdotal reports also suggest it can.

Scientific Studies

Following on from the last point, scientific studies on MDA are limited, especially when compared to MDMA.

In 2010, a double-blind, placebo-controlled study found that MDA may lead to mystical-type experiences, as well as changes to visual perception. For example, the researchers discovered that MDA produced a significant increase in closed-eye visions (CEVs), with considerable individual variation.

Another double-blind, placebo-controlled study from 2019, compared MDA to MDMA. Researchers discovered many of the differences between the two drugs we have already highlighted. MDA effects shared features with MDMA as well as classic psychedelics, and MDA effects remained at the eight-hour mark while those of MDMA resolved after six hours.

In contrast, there is a wealth of research on MDMA, not just as an adjunct to psychotherapy, but also in terms of the drug’s safety and long-term effects.

MDA And MDMA Differ In Their Popularity

Many researchers have wanted to understand the long-term effects of MDMA because it is a highly popular recreational drug. MDA is available in the illicit drug market but not to the same extent as MDMA.

This would make sense if we compare the subjective effects of the two drugs.

MDMA lasts a shorter amount of time, it’s less psychedelic, and it produces stronger empathogenic effects. In comparison to MDA, people also more commonly combine MDMA with psychedelics. This is known as hippie flipping, which is when shrooms are used, and, as candy flipping, when LSD is used.

Disclaimer: We do not endorse the illicit use of Schedule 1 psychedelic compounds in a non-therapeutic setting. We do, however, hope the regulations look at the research to understand how these drugs can used in powerfully positive ways.

Sam Woolfe

Sam Woolfe

View all posts by Sam Woolfe

Sam Woolfe is a freelance writer based in London. His main areas of interest include mental health, mystical experiences, the history of psychedelics, and the philosophy of psychedelics. He first became fascinated by psychedelics after reading Aldous Huxley's description of the mescaline experience in The Doors of Perception. Since then, he has researched and written about psychedelics for various publications, covering the legality of psychedelics, drug policy reform, and psychedelic science.

Dr. Jonathann Kuo

This post was medically approved by Dr. Jonathann Kuo

Jonathann Kuo, MD is a Board Certified Pain Medicine Specialist and Anesthesiologist. He is the founder of Hudson Medical Group (HMG), an innovative and cutting edge healthcare system that combines Medical, Wellness, and Mental Health in the treatment of Pain.

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