Chasing Molly

By Frank Owen & Lera Gavin Photography by Satoshi

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MOLLY TEST NUMBER ONE

The mystery powder in the clear capsule cost $10, a dead giveaway it wasn’t the substance the dope peddler was claiming it was. Nobody sells the real deal for that price. Examining it under the light, one could see yellowish rice-shaped crystals shifting around inside the half-filled capsule. It didn’t even look like the genuine article.

“How many do you want?” asked Fernando, a stubby drug dealer with chubby hamster cheeks and a neatly trimmed goatee.

“Just one. Are you sure this is real?”

“Don’t worry, this shit is fire,” he said.

On a drug-fogged night in late August, I found myself surrounded by a young crowd at a party in South Beach. While New Order’s “Blue Monday” played in the background, I was trying to ignore the loud conversation going on around me so I could focus on my mission: the hunt for the magic molecule called molly—the supposedly purer, allegedly more potent crystalline form of a drug that used to be called ecstasy (or MDMA). Just as methamphetamine was nicknamed “tina” to appeal to a more upmarket crowd, molly is simply ecstasy rebranded with a cute girl’s name, the better to sell it to a new generation. Contrary to what many users believe, molly is not a new drug (night crawlers were snorting powdered MDMA as far back as the early 1980s), and the form the drug takes (pills, powder, capsules) has little bearing on its purity, as I was about to find out.

Not that I intended to consume the product. The last time I took what I was told was pure MDMA, the active ingredient in molly, it turned out to be methamphetamine, and I spent an uncomfortable New Year’s Eve grinding my teeth and twitching like Captain Jack Sparrow. What I intended to do was gather samples and test them with an over-the-counter drug-screening kit to see what was really being sold as molly in the pills-and-powder circus that is Miami Beach’s club scene.

The chance to analyze the unknown substance came a few hours later, at an afterparty at a friend’s apartment in a high-rise on Washington Avenue. “Hey, guys, wanna see something cool?” said my wife, Lera. “I got Fernando’s molly and I’m going to test it right now to see what’s in it. He said this shit is fire.”

Lera pulled out a silver packet containing a multidrug screening test, a plastic panel the size of a credit card that is commonly used to test urine samples for illegal chemicals but has been repurposed by drug connoisseurs to test the contents of molly. The best way to gauge what’s in a drug, of course, is to mail it to a professional laboratory for a gas chromatography/mass spectrometry analysis and then wait for the results. But some of the chemicals turning up in molly these days are so exotic, even the most state-of-the-art facility can fail to detect all of them. At least with a portable screening kit you can find out straightaway if the drug you’ve bought contains any MDMA (though not the amount or its purity). You can also test for other common drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine and oxycodone.

Lera walked into the kitchen, where she opened the molly capsule and poured the crystals onto a plate. We could tell by its odor, like that of contaminated water, that this wasn’t MDMA. Pure molly is generally odorless or smells of aniseed, the result of the sassafras oil used to make the product. Judging by the distinctive stench emanating from the powder, it was most likely some form of synthetic cathinone, the family of chemicals that includes mephedrone and methylone, which are better known to the general public as bath salts.

Lera put about half the contents of the capsule into a coffee cup, poured in water and waited for the crystals to dissolve as her friends looked over her shoulder. She then tore open the silver package and placed the drug-testing kit in the solution. About a minute later, two pink lines appeared on the cocaine section of the panel, then two lines for marijuana and two lines for opiates. It was negative for all three. A single unmistakable line started to appear under methamphetamine, followed by another distinct line under MDMA.

“That’s what I thought,” said Lera. “You see, it came out positive for methamphetamine and MDMA, which is what bath salts will come out as on these tests.”

We concluded the substance was probably mostly synthetic cathinones. Dimitri, who had deejayed the party a few hours earlier, offered his verdict: “We took a bunch of Fernando’s mollies the other day and they didn’t have any effect on us. It’s not like it used to be back in the day. I can’t believe he’s selling us this shit.”

Over the past two years molly has become the drug of choice for a new generation. Why molly now? Why all the fuss about a drug that under different names has been a dance club staple for three decades?

There’s certainly no shortage of references to the drug on the electronic dance music scene. One of the most popular dance hits of the past year is Miami-based DJ Cedric Gervais’s “Molly,” which features the robotic voice of a woman blankly intoning, “Hi, I am looking for Molly. Do you know where I can find Molly? She makes my life happier. More exciting. She makes me want to dance.” From Kanye West to Trinidad James to Rick Ross, molly is portrayed as the happening drug for the hip-hop crowd. Ross had to apologize for his seeming advocacy of molly as a date-rape drug in the song “U.O.E.N.O”: “Put molly all in her champagne, she ain’t even know it./I took her home and I enjoyed that, she ain’t even know it.” (The controversy surrounding the lyric was enough for Reebok to cancel an endorsement deal worth millions with the hip-hop impresario.)

Molly has become so mainstream that even a pop tart like Miley Cyrus feels comfortable singing about “dancing with molly” on her song “We Can’t Stop,” though the drug references were bleeped out during her performance at the Video Music Awards. And what would a pop trend be without a guest appearance by the queen of pop? Madonna jumped on the molly bandwagon last year when she named her 12th studio album MDNA and asked the crowd at 2012’s Ultra Music Festival in Miami, “How many people in this crowd have seen molly?” In the wake of the performance, progressive house music DJ Deadmau5 publicly criticized the aging diva for glamorizing drug use.

The molly phenomenon is also a marketing gimmick—drug dealers rebranding a product that had gotten a bad reputation because it was so heavily cut with other substances. According to the hype, molly is for the cool kids, the discerning consumers who don’t mind paying a premium to ensure quality, whereas ecstasy pills are for “e-tards,” the dance-floor proletariat who turned MDMA from a hippie tool for inner exploration into another excuse to get trashed on a Saturday night.

Fancying themselves smart drug users who pride themselves on knowing where to get the real stuff, many molly consumers seem blissfully unaware that drug dealers routinely substitute synthetic cathinones (bath salts) for MDMA, not only because they’re easier to procure but also because they’re a lot cheaper. A gram of mephedrone or methylone, both cathinones, wholesales for the equivalent of about $3 or $4 and can be bought online from factories in China that churn it out by the metric ton. A gram of pure molly can retail for as much as $120, which reflects not just the demand for this sought-after chemical but also the difficulty of procuring the precursor ingredients—most commonly safrole and PMK—that manufacturers need to make the drug.

According to the Miami Police Department, methylone and mephedrone, along with another synthetic cathinone called 4-MEC, account for the vast bulk of the molly seized by narcotics cops in the area. A DEA spokesperson told me that in the first six months of 2013, the DEA’s Miami field office seized 106 consignments of molly, which contained 43 different substances, 19 of them so obscure even government chemists couldn’t identify them. So much for purity.

“Molly is absolutely a marketing gimmick,” says Missi Wooldridge, a spokesperson for DanceSafe, the harm-reduction organization that tries to educate young consumers about the risks of disco poly-pharmacy. “I think the average molly consumer has no idea what they’re putting into their bodies. The drug scene is so saturated with research chemicals that people not only cut their pills and powders with them but will also often sell straight-up research chemicals as molly. People think they’re getting real MDMA.”

Or maybe there’s something more profound underpinning this molly craze, something to do with the drug’s much vaunted ability to break down social barriers when taken in communal settings.

“This generation has grown up with crystal meth as a chemical bête noire, whereas MDMA is seen as basically benign,” says Mike Power, author of Drugs 2.0, a compelling account of how the internet has revolutionized the global drug trade. “Molly has become hugely popular right now because it is in many ways the perfect drug for the times. We’ve never been so networked yet so disconnected. The overwhelming rush of an MDMA experience is as close as many of us will ever come to connecting with another person.”

The story of MDMA began unremarkably in 1912 when a little-known German chemist named Anton Köllisch first synthesized the substance while working to produce a blood-clotting agent for the pharmaceutical giant Merck. He was trying to get around a patent for a similar drug owned by Merck’s archrival, Bayer, when he stumbled upon MDMA, which was initially called methylsafrylamin. Four years later, he went to his grave with no idea that what he had discovered would affect generations of beat-crazy kids to come. The formula for MDMA, a precursor to a potentially lifesaving medicine that never got made, lay buried in the archives at Merck’s Darmstadt headquarters for decades, until the U.S. military briefly experimented with MDMA in the 1950s as a possible truth serum.

The first time MDMA turned up on law enforcement’s radar was in 1970, when Chicago police confiscated a batch of pills that contained the then unknown chemical. By 1976 the chemist Alexander Shulgin had resynthesized the drug and dosed himself at the suggestion of a former student who had tipped him off about its potential psychoactive effect on humans. Shulgin introduced MDMA to a psychologist friend named Leo Zeff, who in turn introduced it to other psychologists, who in the next few years prescribed about half a million doses. They called it adam, as in being “reborn anew,” because that’s how it made patients feel.

Psychologists and psychotherapists reported remarkable improvements in the emotional well-being of their patients who had taken the drug. It did for them in a few hours what a year’s worth of conventional therapy couldn’t. Some mental health professionals claimed MDMA was particularly useful for couples going through marital problems.

The first mass-scale production of MDMA for recreational use in the United States came courtesy of the so-called Boston Group, a small contingent of chemists who were tenured professors at MIT and Harvard and who were colleagues of LSD guru Timothy Leary. The Boston Group decided they wanted to conduct a social experiment. First at Studio 54, then later at the legendary Paradise Garage, handpicked distributors in the New York area sold the drug as a healthier alternative to cocaine. Then they reported back to the Boston Group about the positive effects the drug was having on the dance floor. One of those distributors was David. Sitting in his Miami Beach apartment today, David is in his early 70s and still deejays, though he makes his real living running a small real estate company. Age hasn’t dulled his vivid memories of the life-changing effects the first wave of recreational ecstasy use had on clubgoers at the time.

“What happened was that these professors up in Boston, who had been using it for therapy for a long time, decided it would be a good idea for the world if MDMA became a social drug instead of cocaine and heroin and all the other bad drugs,” remembers David. “It was a relatively small circle of people on the club scene who were doing ecstasy back then, mainly artistic types. A lot of people wouldn’t try it because they were scared of it. They didn’t want to let their walls down, especially the straight boys, because the rumor was out that taking ecstasy would turn you gay.”

But those straight boys who tried the Boston Group’s product in the 1980s—myself included—were amazed at the drug’s wondrous therapy. MDMA works by flooding the brain with serotonin (which modulates mood and intensifies perception) and dopamine (which speeds up metabolism and creates exhilaration), a combination that lights up the senses like a Christmas tree. It wasn’t long before the Boston Group began hearing from users who told them ecstasy had saved their lives. “They saw that it was really great for people and relationships,” says David. “After a while, people were telling them, ‘Thank you so much, because I was doing all this cocaine and I was getting addicted. Once the ecstasy came along, I could do that and feel great and I wasn’t craving the next day.’?”

I stopped doing MDMA in 1990 around the same time the Boston Group closed shop. “Somebody drove out the chemists making ecstasy,” says David. “They told me that some very dangerous people were threatening them. They had two days to get out of the country. They didn’t use the word mafia, but that’s the impression I got. They packed their bags and all moved to Belgium.” Not coincidently, over the next decade Belgium became a major center for ecstasy production.

A number of factors had informed my decision to quit MDMA. First was the encroachment of thuggish drug dealers with organized-crime connections who weren’t shy about robbing and kidnapping rival dealers to secure their market share. I dubbed these people “ecstasy bandits” when I wrote about them for Details magazine in 1998. A thug who controlled the ecstasy trade at one of New York’s biggest nightclubs in the 1990s is now a respectable businessman who enjoys a round of golf at his local country club. Today he is genuinely regretful about his past behavior.

He recently told me, “When I started dealing, it was hard pills. I haven’t done powdered MDMA. They were yellow and had these dark specks around them. They smelled and tasted horrible but were very powerful. Then these white capsules were introduced. They were gigantic. They were an inch long. And the big complaint was that you were doped out and you didn’t know what the fuck you were doing. And then you got speedy and were up for eight hours with the jitters. I was seeing the decline in the purity. You could see the effect on the dance floor. People weren’t in the zone anymore. The mood got a lot darker. That was around 1993. By that time I was already planning on getting out of the game.”

Heavily adulterated ecstasy tablets, often containing little or no MDMA, swamped nightclubs and raves in the 1990s. Particularly bad was the appearance of a dangerous stimulant called PMA that was sometimes substituted for MDMA in the tablets. The drug site Erowid estimates that 20 people died as a direct result of these tainted pills from 2000 to 2001.

But it was more than declining purity that soured me and other early adopters on MDMA. Even when I could get hold of the real deal, an increasingly rare commodity, the drug wasn’t having the same effect anymore. The initial flood of positive feelings had faded. The law of diminishing returns that affects everybody who does ecstasy for any period of time kicked in.

MDMA advocate Rick Doblin, whose organization, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, has spearheaded a quarter-century-long campaign to rehabilitate MDMA as a valuable therapeutic tool, says this is a common experience.

“There’s a buildup factor with MDMA,” says Doblin. “If people do it a lot over a long period of time, they stop feeling the effect. They don’t get high. It’s as if the molecule has a built-in protection mechanism for the user. That’s why you rarely see people getting addicted to this drug like you do with cocaine and methamphetamine.”

MOLLY TEST NUMBER TWO

Howard is a Miami-based doctor, bodybuilder and dealer of the latest exotic research chemicals. He pulled up to my apartment in his vintage Chevy. He’d come to test some molly. After Fernando’s drugs turned out to be rubbish, I managed to secure another capsule, this one red and costing 20 bucks. The word on the street was this was the bomb. Experienced drug users swore it was among the best MDMA they’d ever taken.

“Yeah, right,” Howard said, rolling his eyeballs. “When I sell people mephedrone for the first time, I tell them it’s not MDMA. It’s an analog, and if they don’t like it, they can have their money back. And they still come back the next day and say, ‘That’s the best molly I ever had.’ Most people can’t tell the difference.”

Howard examined the sample. He said, “You bought this in Miami Beach? I haven’t seen real MDMA in Miami in years. It could be sugar in a capsule.” He emptied the contents of the capsule onto a dinner plate. It sure didn’t look like sugar. The jagged crystals—like shards of broken glass—were immediately familiar, though the slightly off-white powder surrounding the crystals could have been anything.

“That looks like crystal meth,” I said.

“It could be,” Howard responded. “But bath salts come in crystals too, though they’re differently shaped.” He pulled a bag of mephedrone out of his trouser pocket to make a visual comparison.

For the second molly test, Howard was using a 12-panel drug-screening kit that detects twice as many substances as the kit my wife used to test the first sample, including barbiturates and the former animal anesthetic PCP. Howard put about half the contents of the capsule into a cup of water and then dunked the panel. We waited for the test kit to absorb the solution.

“I expect it to be positive for methamphetamine based on the way it looks,” he said, “and maybe have a little MDMA in it. Sometimes they put 10 percent of MDMA in to fool people into thinking it’s molly. Remember, methamphetamine is cheaper than MDMA.”

A minute passed and Howard looked at the test. “Yep, it’s exactly what I thought,” he said. “So it’s negative for opiates, cocaine, PCP, barbiturates and oxycodone. Some people throw some opiates in to mellow out the mix. This is positive for methamphetamine and MDMA.”

The overwhelming bulk of the capsule, Howard concluded, was clearly meth.

“You won’t believe what they put in molly,” he said. “Sometimes pain pills, blood pressure pills, caffeine, aspirin, all in a big capsule.”

My wife and I continued the hunt for pure molly. It was becoming obvious we would have to venture beyond south Florida. While there is some domestic molly production, most of the MDMA consumed in the United States comes from drug gangs in Canada. The amount of MDMA seized at the Canadian border increased ninefold from 2003 to 2007.

We decided New York would be a better choice. One of the biggest electronic dance music festivals in America was about to take place in the city. Tens of thousands of fans, many of them hungry for molly, were set to descend on Randall’s Island for a three-day concert called Electric Zoo, featuring some of the best-known DJs in the world. If we couldn’t find pure molly there, we weren’t going to find it anywhere.

By 11 in the morning on Saturday, August 31, the second day of Electric Zoo, the crowds were already lining up to get into the stadium, a dumpy venue on a lump of land in the middle of the polluted East River. Security was tight. Bags were checked not once but twice. Altoids tins and cigarette packets drew extra scrutiny. IDs were scanned to make sure they weren’t forgeries. The pat-downs were practically indecent.

As the crowd waited patiently to get into the concert, staffers handed out pamphlets with the following warning: “Electric Zoo strongly advocates against the use of drugs. Avoiding drug use is the only way to completely avoid drug-related risks. You don’t need drugs anyway when world-class music is swirling all around you.”

There was a reason for all the paranoia. The previous night, 23-year-old Jeffrey Russ had collapsed at Electric Zoo. He later died at Harlem Hospital Center. The cause of death had yet to be established, but police suspected Russ had taken what he believed to be molly. The victim, a beefy guy who had recently graduated from Syracuse University, traveled to the festival with his fraternity brothers and fell ill as the last sets of the day wrapped up. Russ’s death was the first fatality that weekend. But it wouldn’t be the last.

As the day progressed, the signs of drug use increased. Glow sticks and drug wrappers littered the field. Three friends who appeared to be in their early 20s sat down at a picnic table. One with pasty skin and a blond goatee briefly scanned his surroundings before taking from his backpack a ziplock bag that contained capsules filled with white powder. He took a capsule out, split it and poured the contents into his water bottle. He shook the bottle vigorously and took a sip. He winced and gagged. “This tastes like ass,” he said. “But I’ll be tripping in no time.”

Nearby, close to the entrance to the show, a young Asian man was lying facedown on the grass, humping the ground. He turned his head to one side and vomited. By this point Electric Zoo’s staffers were spraying the crowd with water hoses. Overheating is a major risk factor for molly users.

Around 8:45 in the evening, tragedy struck again. Olivia Rotondo, a 20-year-old University of New Hampshire student, fell ill and was rushed to Metropolitan Hospital Center, where she died shortly after arriving. According to the New York Post, the young woman told a medic before she collapsed that she had taken six hits of molly. Just hours before her death, Rotondo reportedly tweeted, “The amount of traveling I’ve done today is unreal. Just get me to the damn zoo.”

Citing “serious health risks” to concertgoers, the organizers and the city decided to cancel the final day of Electric Zoo. The event’s Facebook page was flooded with angry customers complaining about the cancellation. Typical was this comment: “Honestly, I do not even feel for the people who died. This is fucking stupid. I paid so much money to go to this fucking festival. Just cuz a couple people are fucking dumb you ruin it for 10s of thousands! Fuck you Zoo!”

Eleven days later, the medical examiner released the toxicology report. Russ died after taking the synthetic cathinone methylone combined with MDMA. Surprisingly, Rotondo died after consuming pure MDMA. Hyperthermia played a role in both deaths. Cathinones and MDMA cause the body’s temperature to rise and can lead to organ failure, as was the case here.

Unlike raves in the past, large-scale festivals such as Electric Zoo, Ultra Music Festival and Electric Daisy Carnival refuse to allow organizations such as Dance-Safe to test molly on-site because organizers fear they will be accused of condoning drug use. Maybe if they had, Jeffrey Russ would be alive today.

MOLLY TEST NUMBER THREE

As it turned out, the drug dealer we’d arranged to purchase molly from didn’t show up at Electric Zoo, because he couldn’t get hold of his supply in time. We caught up with him the next evening. The guy has been dealing in New York since the days of the notorious Limelight nightclub and had a good reputation for selling quality product. He assured my wife this was some of the best molly money could buy.

We were hopeful we’d finally found the genuine article. But the contents of this capsule were shocking. It tested positive for cocaine, methamphetamine, MDMA and some form of opiate. That’s three stimulants piled on top of one another with what was probably an oxycodone chaser. If that’s what is in molly in New York, no wonder kids are dropping dead.

A friend consumed that molly and reported back the next day: “Well, it worked. Just not in the way molly is supposed to work. There was some molly there, but it felt like tripping on heroin.”

Despite the two fatalities at Electric Zoo, the big electronic music festival will probably go on next year. Mayor Michael Bloomberg strongly defended the organizers and said they had done everything in their power to protect the concertgoers. At this festival and others, the search for real molly will continue unabated. People will always hunt for that high and take chances to find it. As Drugs 2.0 author Mike Power says, “Unity, euphoria and sex will never go out of style.”

The names of the drug dealers and most of the users in this story have been changed to protect their identities.


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