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Ecstasy often done in combination with other drugs, heightening the risk

Boston police Thursday described Molly, the powder form of ecstasy suspected in the fatal overdose of a 19-year-old college student, as an increasingly popular recreational drug whose low cost and easy availability give it a dangerous appeal.

“We’re seeing more and more of it outside of clubs as well, which is something different from the past,” Robert Merner, commander of the department’s drug control unit, said at an evening press conference Thursday. “This is something that is an emerging trend.”

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As investigators work to determine precisely what caused Brittany Flannigan to collapse at the House of Blues club in Boston early Wednesday morning, police said they would be closely monitoring clubs known for drug use.

Molly, which has been featured in a number of pop songs, is particularly popular among college-age adults across the city.

“It’s clearly in the mainstream,” Merner said. “I’ve spent the past 36 hours talking with young people, and they’re all well aware of it.”

Authorities said it appeared that Flannigan, who attended Plymouth State University, had taken Molly, which raises body temperature and heart rate and can cause severe dehydration. Two other people at the club, a 24-year-old woman and a man in his 20s, were also hospitalized for drug overdoses.

Merner called the use of such drugs part of a national epidemic of pill abuse that often leads to heroin addiction.

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Ingesting the drug is simple, Merner said. While it can be snorted, most people swallow it, and some wrap a concentrated amount in paper to speed up absorption, a method called parachuting. It is often mixed with caffeine, methamphetamine, and other substances.

Police plan to meet with college students and faculty to inform them about the dangers of the drug. Many students have the misperception the drug is not addictive, Merner said.

“I think that adds to some of the desire,” he said.

City health officials say that ecstasy overdoses are rare, accounting for less than 1 percent of the city’s cases. But the emergence of Molly, billed as a more potent form of ecstasy, raises new concerns.

“Any time you have a drug that is claiming to have more levels of purity, it could be more dangerous,” said Rita Nieves, director of the addictions bureau of the Boston Public Health Commission.

In coming weeks, the health commission plans to post fliers in dance clubs warning of the dangers of stimulants, Nieves said. In a hot, crowded venue, ecstasy’s dehydrating effect is amplified.

“We want to make sure [they know] they need to stay hydrated and keep an eye on their temperature level,” she said.

A similar effort several years ago helped curb the impact of crystal methamphetamine, she said.

Specialists say ecstasy is dangerous on its own. But in combination with alcohol and other drugs, the illicit substance poses even greater risks.

An estimated 77 percent of emergency room visits involving MDMA, ecstasy’s formal name, also involved alcohol and other drugs, most commonly marijuana and cocaine, government figures show. Almost 1 in 5 involved a cocktail of at least four other drugs.

Drug specialists say that heavy ecstasy use, combined with other substances, is a dangerous mix.

“If these people were drinking and using MDMA, their chances of harm would go up dramatically,” said Susan Foster, director of policy research at CASAColumbia, which studies addiction and substance abuse. “You can run into big problems fast.”

Nationally, emergency department visits for ecstasy have surged with the drug’s popularity, rising 75 percent between 2004 and 2008.

Just 16 percent of overall emergency visits were in the Northeast.

About 70 percent of patients were ages 18 to 29.

Still, overall use of ecstasy is low compared to other drug use, specialists say. In a 2011 survey, less than 1 percent of college students had used ecstasy in the past month.

“We’re not talking about huge prevalence rates,” Foster said.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Derek J. Anderson can be reached at derek.anderson@globe.com.

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