Molly: Pure, but Not So Simple

The New York Times
Irina Aleksander

Originally appearing here.

At a party not long ago in Park Slope, Brooklyn, Kaitlin, a 22-year-old senior at Columbia University, was recalling the first time she was offered a drug called Molly, at the elegant Brooklyn home of a cultural figure she admired. “She was, like, 50, and she had been written about in the Talk of the Town,” said Kaitlin, who was wearing black skinny jeans and a tank top. “This woman was very smart and impressive.”

At one point, the hostess pulled Kaitlin aside and asked if she had ever tried the drug, which is said to be pure MDMA, the ingredient typically combined with other substances in Ecstasy pills. “She said that it wasn’t cut with anything and that I had nothing to worry about,” said Kaitlin, who declined to give her last name because she is applying for jobs and does not want her association with the drug to scare off potential employers. “And then everyone at the party took it.”

Since that first experience, Kaitlin has encountered Molly at a birthday celebration and at a dance party in Williamsburg. “It’s the only drug I can think of that I have to pay for,” she said. “It makes you really happy. It’s very loose. You just get very turned on ” not even sexually, but you just feel really upbeat and want to dance or whatever.”

Molly is not new, exactly. MDMA, or 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine, was patented by Merck pharmaceuticals in 1914 and did not make much news until the 1970s, when psychotherapists began giving it to patients to get them to open up. It arrived at New York nightclubs in the late 1980s, and by the early ’90s it became the preferred drug at raves at Limelight and Shelter, where a weekly party called NASA later served as a backdrop in Larry Clark’s movie “Kids.”

Known for inducing feelings of euphoria, closeness and diminished anxiety, Ecstasy was quickly embraced by Wall Street traders and Chelsea gallerinas. But as demand increased, so did the adulterants in each pill (caffeine, speed, ephedrine, ketamine, LSD, talcum powder and aspirin, to name a few), and by the new millennium, the drug’s reputation had soured.

Then, sometime in the last decade, it returned to clubs as Molly, a powder or crystalline form of MDMA that implied greater purity and safety: Ecstasy re-branded as a gentler, more approachable drug. And thanks in part to that new friendly moniker, MDMA has found a new following in a generation of conscientious professionals who have never been to a rave and who are known for making careful choices in regard to their food, coffee and clothing. Much as marijuana enthusiasts of an earlier generation sang the virtues of Mary Jane, they argue that Molly (the name is thought to derive from “molecule”) feels natural and basically harmless.

A 26-year-old New York woman named Elliot, who works in film, took Molly a few months ago at a friend’s apartment and headed to dinner at Souen, the popular “macrobiotic, natural organic” restaurant in the East Village, and then went dancing. “I’ve always been somewhat terrified of drugs,” she said. “But I’d been curious about Molly, which is sold as this pure, fun-loving drug. This is probably completely naiive, but I felt I wasn’t putting as many scary chemicals into my body.”

Robert Glatter, an emergency-room physician at Lenox Hill Hospital on the Upper East Side, might disagree. Dr. Glatter used to go months without hearing about Molly; now, he sees about four patients a month exhibiting its common side effects, which include teeth grinding, dehydration, anxiety, insomnia, fever and loss of appetite. (More dangerous ones include hyperthermia, uncontrollable seizures, high blood pressure and depression caused by a sudden drop in serotonin levels in the days after use, nicknamed Suicide Tuesdays.)

“Typically in the past we’d see rave kids, but now we’re seeing more people into their 30s and 40s experimenting with it,” Dr. Glatter said. “MDMA use has increased dramatically. It’s really a global phenomenon now.”

Nationally, the Drug Abuse Warning Network reports that the number of MDMA-related emergency-room visits have doubled since 2004. It is possible to overdose on MDMA, though when taken by itself, the drug rarely leads to death, Dr. Glatter said. (Official mortality figures are not available, but a study by New York City’s deputy chief medical examiner determined that from 1997 to 2000, two people died solely because of MDMA.)

According to the United States Customs and Border Protection, there were 2,670 confiscations of MDMA in 2012, up from 186 in 2008.

“Oh, we’re very aware of it,” said Rusty Payne, an agent at the Drug Enforcement Agency’s national office. Mr. Payne had not heard of Molly before 2008. Since then, the agency has used the term to document arrests in Syracuse and Jackson, Miss. “Molly has been very much glamorized in pop culture, which is obviously a problem,” he said.

Indeed, many attribute MDMA’s resurgence to the return of Electronic Dance Music (or E.D.M.), the pulsating Euro beat that has infiltrated the sound of pop radio acts like Rihanna, Kesha and Katy Perry. At the Ultra Music Festival in Miami last year, Madonna was criticized for asking her audience, “How many people in this crowd have seen Molly?” (She later said that she was referring to a friend’s song, not the drug.)

In the last year, rappers have also embraced Molly, with references to the drug appearing in lyrics by Gucci Mane, Kanye West and Lil Wayne, who raps, “Pop a Molly, smoke a blunt, that mean I’m a high roller,” on Nicki Minaj’s 2012 hit “Roman Reloaded.” Rick Ross was recently dropped as a Reebok spokesman after he rapped about spiking a woman’s Champagne with Molly. And Miley Cyrus has a new single called “We Can’t Stop,” in which she sings what sounds like, “We like to party, dancing with Molly.” (Her producer has said the lyric is “dancing with Miley.”)

People who like Molly, which can cost $20 to $50 a dose, say it is a more socially acceptable drug than cocaine, because it is not physically addictive. Cat Marnell, 30, the former beauty director at who recently sold a memoir about drug addiction to Simon & Schuster for a reported $500,000, has noticed that many of her friends who sell Molly like to pack the powder into clear capsules that they buy from LifeThyme Market, the health food store next to C. O. Bigelow in the West Village. “Molly is the big thing now,” Ms. Marnell said. “Coke is sort of grimy and passe. Weed smells too much and is also sort of low rent and junior high.”

But Ms. Marnell scoffed at MDMA’s reformed image. “People think Molly is this flower-child drug,” she said recalling photos from the 2011 Coachella music festival showing the former Disney star Vanessa Hudgens, wearing a floppy ’70s hat and American Indian-inspired jewelry, dipping into a white powder that the gossip blogs ruled to be Molly. (Her publicist said it was white chocolate.) “It’s true that it’s not like cocaine in that it doesn’t make you bloated and it doesn’t make your nose raw, but sometimes you take it and you can’t sleep or you get really sick. It’s still a hard-core drug.”

MDMA was first classified as an illegal substance in 1985. By the early 2000s, public officials nicknamed Ecstasy “Agony,” and warned that MDMA use could lead to Parkinson’s disease, a lifetime of depression and “holes in your brain.”

Those claims have since been disproved, according to Dr. John Halpern, a psychiatrist at Harvard who has conducted several MDMA studies. In recent years, the Food and Drug Administration has approved studies looking into whether MDMA can be used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety in terminal cancer patients. And Dr. Halpern has found no evidence that the drug impairs cognitive performance. “A drug
that actually does kill brain cells ” which MDMA doesn’t ” is alcohol,” he said.

But a greater worry for doctors and law enforcement officials is the many substances that people might be ingesting unknowingly when they take Molly. “Anyone can call something Molly to try to make sound less harmful,” said Mr. Payne of the D.E.A. “But it can be anything.”

According to Dr. Halpern, many of the powders sold as Molly contain no MDMA whatsoever; others are synthetic concoctions designed to mimic the drug’s effects, Mr. Payne said. Despite promises of greater purity and potency, Molly, as its popularity had grown, is now thought to be as contaminated as Ecstasy once was.

“You’re fooling yourself if you think it’s somehow safer because it’s sold in powdered form,” Dr. Halpern said.

But to some users, Molly still feels like a more respectable substance than others.

“I think people are much more aware of where coke comes from and what it does in those countries,” said Sarah Nicole Prickett, 27, a writer for Vice and The New Inquiry, a culture and commentary site, who called cocaine a “blood drug.” “Molly, if it’s pure, it feels good and fun.” (Much of it comes from Canada and the Netherlands, Mr. Payne said.)

Ms. Prickett, who moved to New York from Toronto last year, added that she could see why the drug might be taking hold in her new habitat.

“My impression of New York was that everyone just did drugs for work, that everyone was on speed,” she said. “Molly makes you feel unplanned, and that’s not a common feeling in New York, where everyone knows where they’re going all the time and they’re going very, very fast.”

Rick Doblin, the founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which has helped finance MDMA studies since the drug first entered the club scene, put Molly in the context of past drug trends: in the 1960s, he suggested, people searched for deeper spirituality and found LSD; in the ’70s, as hippie culture became mainstream, marijuana entered the suburban household; in the ’80s, cocaine complemented the extravagance and selfishness of the greed decade; and by the early ’90s, youths dropped out of reality, dancing all night on Ecstasy or slumping in the corner on heroin. MDMA, which in addition to acting as a stimulant also promotes feelings of bonding and human connection, just might be what people are looking for right now.

“As we move more and more electronic, people are extremely hungry for the opposite: human interaction on a deeper level where you’re not rushing around,” Mr. Doblin said. “The rise of Molly is in tune with how people are feeling emotionally.”
The New York Times shares the history of research into MDMA as an adjunct to therapy while exploring how “Molly” has become more prominent in popular culture. “As we move more and more electronic, people are extremely hungry for the opposite: human interaction on a deeper level where you’re not rushing around,” explains MAPS Founder and Executive Director Rick Doblin. He adds, “The rise of Molly is in tune with how people are feeling emotionally.”