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.