Wesleyan University case: Five things you should know about 'Molly'

Police have linked the popular club drug MDMA to 10 Wesleyan University students and two 'guests' who were hospitalized Sunday. Here’s what you need to know about “Molly” and other similar narcotics.

REUTERS/U.S. DEA/Handout via Reuters
Ecstasy pills contain MDMA as their main chemical. Molly is the street name for a drug that is commonly believed to be the pure powder form of the banned substance known as MDMA.

Ten students and two visitors at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University were sent to area hospitals Sunday in an overdose case that police suspect is linked to the club drug “Molly,” The Associated Press reported.

No details about the students’ conditions have been released, nor have school officials said where the drugs had come from.

But what is Molly, and how is it different from other popular narcotics such as Ecstasy? What are the dangers associated with taking these drugs?

Here are five things you need to know:

MDMA, Ecstasy, Molly: What’s the difference?

MDMA (short for methylenedioxymethamphetamine) is a synthetic, psychoactive drug known by the street name Ecstasy when taken in pill or tablet form, according to a US Drug Enforcement Administration fact sheet. Molly is the crystalline, powdered form of MDMA, and can be ingested in a gel capsule or snorted.

Drug dealers use the latter definition to bill Molly as a “pure” form of MDMA.

“I often say that’s pure crap,” says Dr. James Hall, a drug-abuse epidemiologist at the Center for Applied Research on Substance Abuse and Health Disparities at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Most of what’s being sold as "Molly" today is counterfeit stuff from China that contains cathinone, commonly known as bath salts, Dr. Hall says in a phone interview.

Many pills being marketed as Molly are also cut with aspirin, caffeine, and a number of other chemicals in a variety of doses, according to the DEA.

What are its effects?

The combination of substances in Molly is intended to mimic – and intensify – the effects of MDMA and Ecstasy, says Hall.

MDMA, once ingested, takes about 15 minutes get to the brain, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. There, it increases the activity of serotonin, the neurotransmitter related to mood (including pleasure), sleep, and heart rate.

Often, the “high” begins with a feeling of exhilaration accompanied by nausea. For some, the peak effects include a heightened sense of empathy and closeness, a surge in energy and alertness, and a more intense sense of touch. For others the effects are more negative: paranoia, dizziness, chills, and obsessive teeth clenching.

The high tends to last for about three to six hours, but the surge in serotonin that MDMA causes can be costly: The brain can be depleted of the neurotransmitter for days or even weeks, triggering anxiety, insomnia, confusion, and depression, say doctors and researchers.

What makes it dangerous?

MDMA alone can mess with the body’s ability to regulate temperature and can increase heart rate and blood pressure. Not good when combined with the heat and alcohol often associated with clubs and rave parties, where the drug is often taken.

In 2013, a string of deaths at concerts, clubs, and music festivals in Boston, New York City, Seattle, Miami, and Washington, DC highlighted the drug’s negative effects.

Some of the deaths were attributed to “bad batches” of the substance, but DEA spokesman special agent Joseph Moses has told ABC News, “There’s no such thing as a good batch of MDMA.”

On the other hand, because of the random chemicals it can contain – chemicals that can be deadly in themselves when taken in certain amounts or combinations – Molly is more unpredictable.

“While one pill could contain a lethal dose, another could contain a very mild dose,” Hall says. “Users just don’t know what they’re getting anymore.”

How big is the problem?

The use, distribution, and development of amphetamine-type substances, including MDMA, are global issues, a United Nations report found.

In 2013, the San Francisco Police Department followed “a trail of blood” to $1.5 million worth of MDMA powder and pills. That same year, police in three European countries seized about 60 million Ecstasy pills with a street value of about $1.4 billion. And in November 2014, Australian authorities seized more than $1 billion worth of the drug in the second largest MDMA bust in the country’s history.

As CNN put it, “[I]t's a multibillion-dollar business.”

Molly is also a national and international problem, though its markets tend to be highly localized, Hall says.

How can we combat Molly abuse and distribution?

The very nature of Molly makes it difficult to control, according to Hall. Because it’s sold in relatively small batches within communities, the most effective efforts against its abuse and distribution are in the hands of community coalitions.

Molly is a major problem that the DEA is trying to address, Hall says. “But,” he adds, “it doesn’t fit the exact mold for large-scale trafficking.”

Some schools, such as the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, have taken steps to educate students on the consequences of Molly use. Politicians, such as US Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, have also pushed for legislation that would ban the various chemicals that go into making Molly.

“It really is a national problem that relies on a local solution,” Hall says.

Wesleyan University President Michael Roth is seeking help from students and professors: "If you are aware of people distributing these substances, please let someone know before more people are hurt," he wrote in a letter to the campus.

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