Molly: what clubgoers say about the drug – and why officials are worried

Molly has been tentatively linked to at least four deaths at East Coast gatherings in the past two weeks. Despite the deaths, some in the electronic dance music scene are unapologetic about the use of Molly.

Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times/AP
In this May 26 photo, fans watch the action on the Sasquatch Stage at the Gorge Ampitheatre in eastern Washington. One man died and dozens of people were treated after overdosing on a drug called Molly at a weekend music festival there in May, authorities said.

Do you know where I can find Molly?

So go the lyrics of a wildly popular 2012 electronic dance mix by the French DJ Cedric Gervais and voiced by an iPhone Siri-sound-alike. The entire mix is a not-so-subtle reference to the rebranded club drug once called E, X, or ecstasy and now known as “Molly” – a cutesy pun for “molecule,” which in turn implies a knowing wink at the purported purity of its complex active ingredient, 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine, or MDMA.

She makes my life happier.

More exciting.

She makes me want to dance.

It’s an anthem for teens and young adults the world over, revelers who “pop a Molly” before they hop into the bacchanalian beat, beat, beat of tangled bodies at music festivals and dance clubs. But it’s got city officials and public health officials singing a much different tune.

The subculture of DJs and dance parties has come under fire this week after two revelers died at New York’s Electric Zoo Festival, apparently after overdosing on MDMA. This prompted the city to urge organizers of the festival, which has drawn 100,000 attendees each of the past five years, to cancel last Sunday’s finale.

“It’s very tragic. The bottom line is what you see here is people doing drugs that shouldn’t be doing drugs, and you see the fatal consequences," said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg at a news conference Tuesday. "And when people want to go down that slippery slope and say, ‘Oh, it’s just fun,’ it isn’t just fun. There are two families that are not going to have their children come home.”

Another teen died of an apparent overdose at Boston’s House of Blues last week, prompting city officials to investigate. And in Washington, police officials are looking into whether a death over the weekend at a club was also due to the drug.

Despite the deaths, many of those deep into the electronic dance music scene are unapologetic about the intimate connection between “EDM,” as they call it, and Molly and other drugs. Most eschew alcohol and defend what they say is a euphoric, touch-inducing escape offered by the drug and music combination.

“The idea ... about being able to cut loose and be someone else for the night couldn't be closer to the truth,” e-mails Keenan Hiett, a post-production editor in Los Angeles.

“I am aware of the dangers, and I think most people who partake are as well,” he continues. “I think the efforts to demonize it are short-sighted and unfair to the hundreds of thousands of patrons who are responsible with their use of MDMA, and it's a bit unfortunate that it's publicly starting to gain so much scorn.”

Public health officials say MDMA causes a surge of serotonin and dopamine in the brain. Users cite increased energy and feelings of closeness and empathy, among other sensory distortions. The quest for this high among EDM enthusiasts means that festivals and concerts are rampant with the illicit substances.

“I mean, there might be some kids that bring stuff with them to use or to sell, but the common idea is, you don’t bring sand to a beach,” says Matthew Walcott, a former student at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, N.H. “There’s no reason to, because there’s crazy, crazy amounts of drugs everywhere.”

The deaths and the cancellation of EDM shows like Electric Zoo have sparked a chorus of tweets and social media conversations among enthusiasts – some calling for restraint, others lambasting the “kiddies” who show no control as they pop Molly after Molly.

“I noticed this year, and the first year I went to Camp Bisco [an annual EDM festival near Albany, N.Y.], but this year especially, there were a lot of people complaining about kids that were just going for, not even the music, just going to do drugs and searching for the next high,” Mr. Walcott says.

Yet national surveys have not indicated a major shift in consumption of MDMA in the past couple of years, says Wilson Compton, director of the Division of Epidemiology, Services and Prevention Research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “That said, drug abuse takes place in local communities, so the national trends can mask some very severe problems that can be taking place in multiple local regions around the country,” he says.

“So we’re certainly concerned about reports that we’re hearing in different locations, about complications and side effects of these synthetic agents,” Mr. Compton adds.

MDMA is not as addictive as other drugs, including alcohol and cocaine, but the surge of serotonin can result in severe depression, muscle tension, faintness, and blurred vision, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. It can produce increased body temperature, and “some people can die from the equivalent of heat exhaustion brought on by the excess activity under the influence of this substance,” Compton says.

Even so, sobriety is rare at EDM festivals, most attendees say.

“Being at a club while sober is strange because no one around you is really aware of what's happening around them. So you are getting bumped into and sweated on while just trying to enjoy the music,” says Derek Robinson, a college-age pastor’s son and full-time intern at Bridgeway Community Church in Columbia, Md.

“I didn't see many people who were sober there, maybe 5 percent of the people at most,” says Mr. Robinson, who notes he does not do drugs at EDM concerts. “But I've found that being sober is strange because a lot of the time, the artists will arrange the show in a way that is cohesive with the drugs to provide an experience for those who are under the influence.”

MDMA is thought to cause few direct deaths, although such national statistics were not available from the Centers for Disease Control or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). According to the New York’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, deaths from ecstasy in the city have averaged less than five per year over the past 12 years.

In general, most deaths have been attributed to adulterated doses or bath salt substitutes – a particular problem when most purchases occur at festivals or clubs.

Of the approximately 1.3 million emergency-room visits due to ingestion of illicit drugs in 2011, only 22,500 were attributed to MDMA, according to SAMHSA. However, that represents a 120 percent increase from 2004.

At clubs and festivals, it’s not uncommon to see revelers go into a “K hole,” a slang term for a near-unconscious state that was originally attributed to an overdose of the drug ketamine.  

More and more, EDM and Molly enthusiasts are turning to drug test kits, such as Bunk Police, which can be purchased from Amazon. Growing in popularity at festivals and clubs, these kits allow users to test whether their Molly is laced with impurities.

“Nowadays, there’s a lot of people selling bath salts,” Walcott says. “Most of the time, if you ask if you can test their stuff, they’ll let you test it. And if they don’t, it’s a pretty good indication that you don't want to be doing their drugs.”

So far, the deaths this summer have done little to deter those deep into the culture of dance music and drugs, and the talk among many of them is a more responsible use of Molly.

“I see a lot of negative press and speculation on this subculture and the drugs involved,” Mr. Hiett e-mails. “I understand the outside perspective, and I think the fact that most of the time, when related stories are widespread, they're usually involving an unfortunate death, which is a difficult disadvantage for the scene to overcome. It's tragic to see those things happen, but it's not indicative of most of the people involved in the subculture.”

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