There’s something about Molly
How a supposedly safe party drug turned lethal.
MULTICOLORED LASER LIGHTS search the darkness, picking out bodies crowded into the tight, hot space of Rise. Located in the Theatre District, the city’s only after-hours dance club is packed at 3 a.m., full of people swaying to a pounding bass line, music you can feel in your chest. Most are in their late teens or 20s, and many are clearly rolling — they’re under the influence of a drug called MDMA, sometimes called Molly, that causes a flood, or “cascade,” of serotonin and other neurotransmitters to the brain.
The effect, for most users, is reduced anxiety, an increased feeling of connection to others, and heightened sensations — sight, hearing, touch — making everything feel good. Downstairs, a dozen clubgoers lounge on couches under a pair of disco balls. A shirtless guy with flowy pants is wearing gloves with glowing, colored tips, spinning them repetitively in front of a woman wearing sunglasses while another guy gives her a back rub.
Rise is a private club for members, and it doesn’t serve alcohol. For a $20 fee, nonmembers can come in, dance, buy water, and relax until dawn. A guy wearing a black-and-white baseball shirt has arms covered in what members of the electronic dance music scene call kandi, beaded bracelets given out to make friends and share good vibes. On one arm is a line of tattoos — a peace sign, a heart, a yin and yang — that represents the rave doctrine of PLUR, short for peace, love, unity, and respect. He’s still working on the last tattoo, he says.
“This is a way of life for me. I’ve met a lot of great people, and I know it sounds weird but I’ve learned a lot about myself,” says the 21-year-old clubgoer, who freely admits that he’s rolling but asks not to be quoted by name. He says he first tried club drugs in 2012 and has been regularly coming to events like this — DJ shows, after-hours dance parties, raves in underground spaces — for nine months. “You’re very comfortable when you are rolling; you really connect with people,” he says. “Like that girl.” He points to a woman across the room. “I love that girl. . . . She’s awesome.”
His exuberance may be fueled by the drug he’s using, but his joy appears genuine enough. In fact, everyone here seems mellow and happy, enjoying the free-flowing good vibes and a total lack of aggression you don’t always see on the bar scene. “For years, I listened to heavy metal music. Then I heard a trance song and I felt at home for the first time,” says another young man in a black winter hat with bulging muscles who also requests anonymity. “I’ve never met someone rolling who wants to listen to death metal,” he says, adding that drugs make the club’s music “that much better.”
Like everyone I ask here, he’s heard about the dangers of club drugs, including reports of multiple Molly overdoses last summer and fall. Within a three-month period, five people on the East Coast died, including one rushed to the hospital from Boston’s House of Blues over Labor Day weekend. Multiple news stories followed, warning of a possible “bad batch” laced with dangerous chemicals. The man in the black hat shrugs off the dangers. “MDMA never killed anyone,” he says. “Everything is OK in moderation.” The guy in the baseball shirt agrees. “More people die from alcohol than MDMA. If you don’t know how to do it, don’t do it.”
MDMA, or 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, was originally created in 1912 as a possible blood-clotting agent by the German pharmaceutical company Merck, according to archival research of that company’s records published in 2006 in the medical journal Addiction. Although it underwent animal testing soon after, it wasn’t tried on humans until the 1950s. In the mid-’70s, according to a 2010 Addiction article, a Dow chemist named Alexander Shulgin learned of its effects, resynthesized the drug, and performed tests on himself. Soon he was touting the drug for producing feelings of closeness and empathy. He became known as the “Father of MDMA,” or ecstasy, as the drug was known in the club scene of the late 1980s and 1990s, the burgeoning of electronic music.
Classified as a psychostimulant — the same drug family as methamphetamine and the attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder drugs Ritalin and Adderall — MDMA works by increasing the level of the body’s natural neurotransmitters, mostly serotonin but also dopamine and norepinephrine. In extreme cases it can cause serotonin syndrome: a rapid increase in body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure that can lead to hyperthermia and sometimes death. In law enforcement terms, it is a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it has no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.
While medical experts don’t call it safe, the risks of MDMA use are slight compared with other illegal street drugs such as crack, crystal meth, and heroin. “I don’t know of any clinical trials that show it’s addictive,” says neuropharmacologist David Farb, a professor and chairman of the Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics at Boston University School of Medicine. “Mucking around with brain chemistry is dangerous territory,” he says. But then you could say that about a lot of chemicals that are more socially acceptable. “I know alcohol is very dangerous,” adds Farb. “And yet drinking is pervasive in our culture, and I love to have a glass of wine with dinner.”
More worrisome than the pure drug, however, is the unpredictability of what today is sold on the street as Molly. Almost from its beginning, MDMA was mixed with methamphetamine, heroin, the anesthetic ketamine, and other potentially addictive and harmful substances, fueling concerns about its safety. The same concerns came back with the resurgence of the electronic music scene about five years ago, says Missi Wooldridge, the executive director of DanceSafe, a nonprofit based in Denver that promotes health and safety within the electronic music community. Her background is in public health. Molly emerged in the late 1990s, she says, as a “more pure” form of MDMA, unadulterated by other substances. “It’s basically just been a re-branding,” says Wooldridge. It was sold in a crystalline form that users swallowed, snorted, or simply let dissolve in their mouths. “At that point you could pretty much guarantee purity,” she says.
Around 2007, Molly really took off, Wooldridge says. And as the drug became more popular — name-checked in songs by Kanye West and, recently, Miley Cyrus — more and more college students began taking it, and supply started to outpace demand. Molly pills appeared, and the drug was often adulterated or even substituted with other drugs, she says. “As [the drug] gained popularity,” she explains, “access to pure Molly has become pretty rare.”
THIS WAS CONFIRMED by a dealer who agreed, through a mutual acquaintance, to meet me at night in a Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot in the Beachmont section of Revere. Worried about being identified, he wore a striped hoodie over a Guy Fawkes mask, which he kept on throughout our half-hour interview in my Honda.
He tried pure Molly in 2011, he says, sipping from a nip bottle of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky beneath the mask while we talk, and “started selling as soon as I was taking it.” Back then, he would buy MDMA in crystal form for $30 a gram online, he says, and sell it for $100. He says he bought it primarily through a website called Silk Road, a clearinghouse for illegal drugs that the FBI shut down last October. The dealer is understandably vague about where he sources drugs, though he says he still buys online. (The Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office says that in 2013 the street price of MDMA was $85 per gram.)
The dealer says that by the end of 2012 he was seeing more of another drug, a synthetic cathinone called methylone or M1, which has some effects similar to MDMA but more stimulant properties and fewer euphoric properties. (Synthetic cathinones, including M1, are often active ingredients in drugs known as bath salts.) M1 is preferred by some clubgoers, who compare it to cocaine or methamphetamine. “MDMA makes people very relaxed,” says the dealer. “M1 is more speedy.” Some dealers prefer it, this one tells me, because it costs half the price of MDMA wholesale but goes for nearly as much on the street, a claim DanceSafe executives say is accurate based on their knowledge of Silk Road’s and street prices.
Synthetic cathinones are also relatively unknown and unpredictable. According to the researcher Farb, they can produce feelings of anxiety and paranoia as well as hallucinations. They’re not well understood, he says, though they have been on the club scene and in academic textbooks about drugs for about 20 years.
The clubgoers I spoke with at Rise who have tried both drugs were dismissive of M1 as inferior to MDMA. They also said it had significant negative side effects the following day.
The dealer insists he didn’t sell M1 as Molly. He says, “I didn’t lie to people; I told them what it was,” but he can’t say what other dealers told their clients.
BOSTON MAY HAVE SEEN the results of the adulteration of Molly firsthand on August 28, the Wednesday before Labor Day, when an excited crowd filled up the House of Blues, a music club on Lansdowne Street behind Fenway Park. They were there for one of the last electronic music concerts of the summer — a show by superstar DJ Anton Zaslavski, a German better known by his stage name, Zedd. Just after midnight, a security officer noticed a young woman “in a state of convulsion while still on her feet” in a stairwell. The guard helped the woman lie down, and noted that she was unresponsive. Within five minutes, an ambulance arrived to take the woman, 19-year-old Brittany Flannigan, to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center’s emergency room. When police arrived at the hospital, she was already dead.
Flannigan, an honor-roll student at Plymouth State University from Derry, New Hampshire, had a bright smile and volunteered with the disabled. She was one of three concertgoers police say overdosed at the club that night. A man in his 20s found wandering dazed in the lobby and a 25-year-old woman who fell down on the dance floor were also taken to the hospital. There, doctors discovered two pills in the woman’s pocket and a bag of white powder in her bra. Immediately, police blamed Molly for the overdoses and for Flannigan’s death, though a toxicology report has yet to be completed.
The cases were part of a string of apparent club drug overdoses over Labor Day weekend. That Saturday at the Bank of America Pavilion in Boston, police apprehended a man who said he blacked out after taking a hit of Molly. When they arrived, he was fighting with security and tried to hop out of a moving ambulance on the way to the hospital. The same night, a pair of men overdosed at the summer outdoor concert venue Ocean Club in Quincy — two of a dozen overdoses at the club in three weeks. And in New York City that Saturday, two concertgoers died and four became critically ill at the Electric Zoo Music Festival. One of those who died was a 20-year-old North Providence, Rhode Island, native and University of New Hampshire student named Olivia Rotondo. According to newspaper reports, she told EMS workers “I took six hits of Molly” before collapsing into seizures.
New York City released a statement following the deaths, blaming them on “the drug MDMA (ecstasy or Molly),” and then canceled the last day of the festival. The Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, New Hampshire, canceled an electronic dance music concert called the Barstool Blackout Tour. Newspapers around the country began sounding the alarm about Molly, warning of a “bad batch” of the drug going around the Northeast. Two other deaths — in New York in July and Washington, D.C., in August — are reportedly linked to the drug.
Despite the alarm, club drugs actually are to blame in only an infinitesimal portion of overdoses. In Boston, according to a 2012 report of more than 15,000 emergency room admissions for substance abuse treatment, heroin and other opioids accounted for 57 percent, alcohol for 32 percent, cocaine and crack for 4 percent, and marijuana for 3 percent. Admissions for psychostimulants like Molly didn’t even make the stats.
Dr. Matthew Mostofi, assistant chief of emergency medicine at Tufts Medical Center, says he and his colleagues each sees three or four cases a year, compared with daily incidents involving alcohol and heroin. “The fact is, there are more opiate users dying every day than someone using Molly or ecstasy,” he says. He attributes the attention given to the substance not to its dangers — though he doesn’t think it is safe — but to the type of users who have died. “Any time a 19-year-old girl in college dies, that is a story.” One public official, speaking off the record, is more blunt when asked why Molly received so much attention this fall: “Because it was a pretty white girl who died.”
Following the cases at House of Blues and Bank of America Pavilion, the City of Boston’s licensing board found the clubs were not at fault. The report on the incidents at the House of Blues stated that all of the patrons who overdosed purchased the drugs outside the club and that staff checked bags properly and moved quickly upon signs that medical care was needed. The licensing board found adequate security and thorough inspections at the Pavilion as well. “You can’t really detect a small pill, especially with one woman who had it inside her bra,” says licensing board chairwoman Nicole Murati Ferrer.
Even so, last fall, more than 125 owners and managers from 28 Boston clubs, bars, and concert venues (including House of Blues and Bank of America Pavilion) joined city police and the Public Health Commission for additional training. Police and emergency medical services workers taught staff to recognize signs of drug use so they could turn away people using drugs and, when appropriate, call 911. Inside the clubs, officials recommended having free, sealed water bottles available, a cool-down area off the dance floor, and checks every 15 minutes of bathrooms and other dark corners where drugs might be sold or taken.
“We were quite pleased with how receptive club owners and staff were to training,” says Robert Merner, superintendent of the Boston Police Department’s Bureau of Investigative Services. “It’s not the days of the ’70s or ’80s when you have 10 people in a bathroom stall doing cocaine [or] when clubs had private ambulances waiting behind the back door.” The city has distributed posters urging clubgoers not to take drugs, but is also promoting treatment rather than threatening punishment for those showing signs of physical distress. “The most beneficial thing we can do is save lives,” says Merner. “We don’t need any more stories of 19-, 20-year-olds dying.”
Outside the clubs, Boston police have attempted to flush out and arrest dealers of Molly and other club drugs in an investigation dubbed “Operation Party Favor.” Since September, investigators have gone undercover on Internet sites, including Facebook and Craigslist, posing as young women offering to buy Molly or trade sex for it. They then meet dealers at restaurants or clubs in sting operations. So far, says Merner, the operation has resulted in more than 40 arrests of alleged dealers now awaiting prosecution.
Merner dismisses rumors of a particular “bad batch” of Molly being behind the overdoses last summer and fall. He says the drugs being sold as Molly that Boston police seized were MDMA cut with ingredients such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and caffeine. “Any batch would be considered a bad batch in my opinion,” says Merner.
In Quincy last summer, undercover police arrested 12 men allegedly selling drugs as Molly at the Ocean Club, both in the venue and in the parking lot. From them they seized a combined 100 grams of what turned out to be methylone, not MDMA. According to drug unit commander Patrick Glynn, the city licensing board members and police chief have been in discussions with the club’s owners as they conduct their investigations; still, the club may not open this summer. Quincy police also got a report of two shipments of Molly from China and seized 2 kilos. That, too, says Glynn, was methylone.
DANCESAFE and Wooldridge are officially neutral about the drugs clubgoers take, but she sees efforts to ban drugs and events as unrealistic in terms of solving the overdose problem. “It’s really unfortunate that people think that by banning events it’s going to end the party or end drug use,” she says. “It’s just going to move into an underground setting or someone’s house.” The group has its own solutions, including education efforts focusing on drugs in the marketplace. It cosponsors a website, ecstasydata.org, that shows pictures of different types of pills and powders bought on the street, together with an independent analysis of what’s in them. DanceSafe started testing in 2001 and the site is constantly updated; in 2013, the group tested more than 300 pills that had been sold around the world. Of those, only 28 percent were pure MDMA, 13 percent contained MDMA and something else, and 32 percent had no MDMA at all.
In addition, DanceSafe sells $20 home-testing kits that allow those contemplating taking a pill or powder to identify some of the substances it contains. One kit, for example, includes a reagent that causes MDMA to turn purple and methylone to turn brown; another causes MDMA to turn blue and cocaine to turn yellow. By process of elimination, users can be reasonably assured of what they are taking. For those without a testing kit, she recommends starting with a small amount to see how their body reacts before taking more, staying hydrated, and using the “buddy system” to look out for friends. “I don’t think the average person going to events is a drug addict; they are recreational users, going through an experimental phase,” says Wooldridge. “Personally, I think it’s all about making educated and informed decisions. If you do choose to experiment, you should know what you are doing.”
During the winter months, the electronic dance music scene dies down and shows are fewer. But come summer, the DJs will spin once again in the clubs and college students will be swallowing Molly in search of new experiences. Police are optimistic that they have stemmed the flow of the drug but do not pretend they have eradicated it from the clubs. “It’s a tough situation,” says Quincy’s Glynn. “The best we can do is try and keep ahead of it to keep people safe.”
Michael Blanding is a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. Rachel Gordon of the Schuster Institute provided research assistance. Send comments to email@example.com.