Meet Molly: do you really know what you’re taking?

This graphic shows the rise of the synthetic cathinone confiscations in the United States over four years.  In the same period, MDMA confiscations decreased. (Graph from the Drug Enforcement Agency)

This graphic shows the rise of the synthetic cathinone confiscations in the United States over four years. In the same period, MDMA confiscations decreased. (Graph from the Drug Enforcement Agency)

Therapeutic in the 70s, a club accessory in the 80s, and a pop-culture phenomenon today. From Empathy, to Ecstasy to Molly, MDMA refuses to disappear. But despite being marketed as pure, especially in its current iteration, nothing could be farther from the truth. Do you really know what you’re taking?


You could see the girl’s hands waving in the air when the stage lights passed over her silhouette, her head nodding side to side in trance, chest lifted toward the ceiling, hips gyrating as if she were making love with the music, and all this to a low-volume, pre-concert playlist. I leaned to my friend and whispered, “Someone’s rolling.”

Pure Molly, known as Ecstasy from the 1980s until the late 2000s, is nothing but MDMA, or methylenedioxymethamphetamine – a synthetic, mildly hallucinogenic stimulant known for the intense euphoria and sense of interconnectedness it gives its users. Recently, it has become a part of the pop-culture phenomenon that has invaded hip-hop, pop, and most infamously, electronic dance music (EDM). The drug has become so embedded in EDM that the two, for many people, now come hand-in-hand.

I was not surprised, then, to see so many people who were high on it at Music Farm’s Oct. 29 EDM show. My friend and I introduced ourselves to a few users and took up conversation about the drug, one of whom quickly admitted to have taken it on her way to the concert. “It feels like you settle really easy into everything you’re

doing,” she told us. “It makes the experience fuller, like I love the music and everything and you hear everything, you see every light, you hear every sound, and you feel all the bass… That’s why I do it.”

Another user shared a deeper perspective. “Right now I feel calm and excited,” she giggled, still dancing. “I feel like, immediately, even when the two of you stepped up, there was just good people around, good people to be found here, all throughout this venue… I feel very much more connected with people… And what’s beautiful about these connections is just, they feel pure…”

The openness and intimacy of her response exemplifies exactly what many researchers, such as College of Charleston psychology professor James Hittner, believe to be an effect of the substance. “Back in the 70s, therapists wanted to use [Ecstasy] because the sense was that it helped people feel closer to each other,” Hittner said. “A number of psychologists actually wanted to call this drug Empathy.”

Molly, the name by which MDMA is most commonly sold today, references the term chemists used in the 80s to refer to a freshly made batch. The old nickname’s use in recent years is a rebranding effort following Ecstasy’s downfall.

After Ecstasy was established as the club drug in the late 80s and 90s, dealers began to adulterate it with cheaper substances, such as cocaine and caffeine, in order to increase profit margins. The problem became so widespread that the drug’s newly attained user base began to dissipate, its use and fame sharply declining at the start of the 21st century. Today, Molly is marketed as pure Ecstasy, unadulterated Ecstasy, Ecstasy without the problems that brought Ecstasy down. However, this is far from the case.

A dealer commented in an interview, “When Molly comes to [town] and somebody else gets it, they gonna step on it, break it down, put whatever they can in it so they can make them a little extra money.” The anonymous dealer has made money from contraband since he was 15, over seven years ago, and claims he does not cut his Molly like other dealers do. “I don’t do that. I leave it the way I get it. I don’t touch it; I just sell it when it come.”

But Molly’s problems run far deeper than low-level dealers adulterating the substance. Despite the drug’s wide availability and explosive growth in pop-culture, the National Seizure System has seen an 82 percent drop in actual MDMA, from 2,438 kilograms in 2008 to just 432 kilograms in 2012. How can that be, with Molly’s use skyrocketing so publicly?

In a recent three-year analysis carried out by the DEA, only 13 percent of substances marketed as Molly actually contained any MDMA. Instead, shady chemicals such as 4-MEC and Methylone made up most of the confiscated “Molly” doses. These chemicals belong to a class of drugs called cathinones, synthetic stimulants known by most people as Bath Salts. A spokesman for the DEA said that between 200 and 300 new cathinones have been created over the last five years, mostly produced in Chinese factories and shipped to the United States under the auspices of Molly. “Taking Molly really is a game of Russian Roulette,” William Richardson of the South Carolina Poison Control Center commented. “You don’t know what you’re going to get; each ‘dose’ is different.”

Molly may not be actual MDMA nearly 90 percent of the time, but it still ranks low in the grand scheme of overdose- related deaths. Dr. Hunter Louis, an Emergency Attendant at Roper Hospital, says that alcohol, “by far and away,” is the number one type of intoxication he treats, with Molly- related cases occurring “pretty darn rarely.” A user at Music Farm said she “absolutely, definitely” feels more in control on Molly than she does when drinking. “I don’t really like to drink a lot, I like alternative drugs better… If I’m drinking there’s no control.”

That said, the stakes are still high. “MDMA and other sympathomimetics [including Bath Salts] can occasionally cause what’s called serotonin syndrome,” Louis said, speaking of cases he has previously treated.

Serotonin syndrome is a condition in which the neurotransmitter serotonin floods the brain, causes “increased temperature, blood pressure and heart rate,” Louis said. “[The patient] can also have a lot of facial flushing, diarrhea, vomiting, and those patients, if they do have serotonin syndrome, must be handled very carefully because it can produce cardiovascular collapse.”

“I think [Molly] can be lethal,” Louis concluded. “It’s certainly documented that it can be lethal, especially when it’s cut with other sympathomimetic.”

Medical risks aside, the legal ramifications if caught are harsh. A user found with no more than 15 capsules (or dosage units) can face up to six months behind bars and be fined at most $1,000. A low-level dealer caught with 15 to 100 doses can face up to five years in federal prison, while a person higher up the chain caught with 1,000 doses faces a mandatory 25.

For our anonymous dealer, however, there are no worries. “You just move smart, don’t drive crazy, keep a small circle, don’t talk to a lotta people, don’t, you know, don’t be stupid, don’t be greedy. Stay humble, stay hungry, stay smart, stay low-key.”

For your average user, too, like the high, erotic dancer at Music Farm, worries are washed away by waves of euphoria. But is it really MDMA elevating her mood? Probably not. Does she even know what she drank down with orange juice, what is really seeping into her brain? Almost definitely not.

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