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How Ecstasy Has Evolved in the New Millennium

Colorful, candy-like pills have been replaced with gelcaps, but despite what some people think, that doesn't mean the drug has gotten any purer or safer.
January 13, 2016, 6:25pm
Where oh where have you gone? Photo via Wikimedia

In 2012, Madonna put out the album MDNA, obnoxiously ushering MDMA into a new era of mainstream notoriety. But M was one of the party drugs of choice long before pop stars and rappers started adding it to their lyrics, and its use certainly predated the electronic dance music resurgence that happened in North America in the late 2000s. It didn't, however, present itself the way it does today, in powder or crystalline form—at raves in the 90s and early 2000s, MDMA was known as an ingredient in the colorful pressed pills of ecstasy imprinted with logos, such as Playboy bunnies or Mercedes Benz emblems (at one point, White Doves were the best, we heard). But today, in the US and Canada at least, it's become standard to take MDMA in the form of gel capsules stuffed with powder. Meanwhile, the type of ecstasy that bears a passing resemblance to candy is increasingly falling out of favor.


On a fall evening in 2008, immediately after taking out the last $20 from my bank account, I walked to a side street in downtown Pittsburgh with two friends to go meet an E dealer. When my friends and I got back to our dorm, the three of us simultaneously swallowed a peach-colored pill each with a woman's silhouette printed on it. When we were coming up, we went to a park, and though the temperature was hovering just around freezing, I took off my shoes and happily pranced around barefoot in a fountain. It still floors me I was able to get pressed pills that were somewhat OK despite being a dumbass teenager who bought off a literal back-alley dealer. It was a complete fluke, and though I was unaware at the moment that I was rolling face, this was one of the last times I'd be able to get ahold of this specific kind of drug in the coming years.

After recalling with nostalgia the days when I could regularly find colorful, printed E with my party friends over and over, and a longing for the the intense jaw-clenching evenings of rolling my face off, unable to stop dancing, I was left wondering why we had all switched to caps of M. On top of that, an increasing frustration with the way modern MDMA was still being described and shown in photos in mainstream media as colorful E pills, I was determined to figure out where the fuck all the pressed pills had gone.

In one of the most loathsome examples of MDMA being referenced in pop culture, rapper Tyga asked the entire world where molly was.

By 2010, though I was around party drugs most of the time, no one I came into contact with in multiple cities across the northeast US or in Canada was doing colorful pressed E pills anymore or even able to find them. Suddenly, we were all after something else: MDMA capsules. By that time, the sentiments of 90s rave culture—the neon, the glowsticks, the faux fur—had changed hands as the original raver audience grew up; emerging genres, such as deep house, skewed more to the mature side, contributing to the altering of dance music culture overall. Somewhere along the way, the form of drugs consumed at parties changed too.


MDMA capsules are a bit different from E pills in a few ways. The most obvious differentiation is the appearance: Pressed pills of E are typically colored ones that can come in different shapes and with logos printed on them; what people call M (or, if they're awful, "molly") is generally white to tan powder or crystal contained in a clear gel capsule. The first type, pressed pills, are a bit more complicated to make, and require specific expensive equipment like a press—not something that would be easy to get before purchasing items on the internet was so common. For the former type, if you've already gotten your MDMA from the internet or another source, gel capsules to put your M in are easy enough to get at head shops or your average drug stores. Both types are supposed to contain MDMA, not that it always turns out that way. However, E pills are not marketed as pure MDMA (it's generally accepted that they have at least one other drug in them, such as speed) whereas M capsules are. As of 2014, MDMA (in any form) was the fifth most-consumed drug in the world (just behind alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, and energy drinks), according to the Global Drug Survey.

Pill pressing is not the simplest process in the world

By 2009, when I personally started to see the shift away from E pills to MDMA capsules, it was in the middle of the electro house trend that had infected nearly every person I knew in their late teens or early 20s. I started spending my weekends going to see DJs play obnoxious music punctuated by beeps and boops, including frequent trips to Toronto. Eventually I moved to Toronto, where I took M more times than not when I went out dancing. Over the years in which I've spent almost every weekend going to electronic music events—in multiple cities across the US and Canada—I've only found those elusive colorful pressed pills of E a handful of times.


I'm far from the only person who has recognized the shift in the way people take MDMA in some parts of North America. I spoke to a 26-year-old woman who was involved in burgeoning all-ages rave scene in Toronto as a teenager and spent much of her weekends from 2004 to 2006 taking pressed pills, her favorite ones being blue dolphins and green omegas. She said she had never heard of caps of M until 2008, when one of her raver friends told her, "It's like E, but cleaner, without all the added bullshit." After all, she said, it was easy to get "sketchy" E pills that had too much speed in them, so a purer option was lucrative. She spent the next few years taking M in the new form she had found out about and going to drum n' bass parties. In the past few years, she said, she has only come across E a few times, and she says its potency is weak compared to what she used to get as a teenager.

MDMA in crystalline powder form. Photo via Wikimedia

Harm Reduction and Cops Recognize Evolving Form of Ecstasy

Trip! Project, a harm reduction organization based in Toronto that has been around since 1995, has also observed this shift. Though they focus their efforts in one city, through their communications with other similar organizations across Canada and in the US, project coordinator Lori Kufner was able to pinpoint that a transition in the form of MDMA between occurred between 2007 and 2009. "There used to be a lot more pressed pills, and definitely people were a lot more interested in buying the colored, stamped circles, hearts… because then you could at least tell your friends, 'Oh, the pink smiley faces or yellow stars are like this,' and they wouldn't change that much," she told me. "Then nobody wanted anything to do with pressed pills anymore, and that sort of increased the desire for the white, off-white, or brown crystals, rocks, or powders."

Detective John Margetson, who works for the Toronto Police Service's Drug Squad, has also seen the shift. From the mid to late 90s, Margetson said, "[Ecstasy] looked like Sweetarts, with a color and impression, and that's the way it was across the board." By 2010, he observed, "people started selling what they call "molly," which is granular MDMA… it would be very odd to get a tablet now; it's just either straight up buying powder by weight or gel capsules." He also mentioned that in through his experience with undercover operations, often what dealers think they are selling as MDMA turns out to be another substance.


Kufner says many different factors could be at play, including the explosion of electronic dance music (EDM) in North America during that timeframe, noting that this was around the time when the term "molly" started to be used commonly in pop culture as well, and the fact that drug-testing kits became more available. Also, of course, constant access to the internet has changed the way we look up our drugs (like on Erowid or EcstasyData), and for better or worse, has given the average person the ability to order all kinds of substances online—even far-fetched ones that most people have never heard of. With the affordability of these emerging psychoactive substances being mass-produced in countries such as China and sold on the internet (you can buy a sellable amount for under $10 in some cases), dealers in the US and Canada have picked up on a way to make a massive profit margin.

I spoke to a former E dealer in British Columbia who also noted the change: "By moving towards powdered caps, they took the branding away, which helps shittier M make it to market and be sold… the pressing of the pills takes too much time and energy; if a producer can get the same amount for powder as a pill, why waste the time to press into a pill?" He doesn't sell anymore, and though he says he takes M sometimes, he doesn't have access to pressed pills of E anymore, and hasn't seen them around in years.


Another source, who frequently took E at raves in Toronto as a teenager from 1993 to 1998, said "to make pills you had to have a pill press… they were hard to get, and if you got caught, [there was fear that] cops could link you to every pill they ever confiscated with your imprint, so I think the manufacturers decided to switch to caps." She said she remembers the capsules of powder being around as well, but that there was a negative connotation with them, and that people felt "safer" taking pressed pills. For instance, she said, she once took a capsule that ended up having heroin in it, confirming the hesitation many around her held at the time about taking drugs in that form. Today, however, that thinking has completely flipped—people often think gel capsules containing powder or crystals are the better bet when it comes to purity and quality, which, though it may have been true at some point, is not always accurate.

"[Pure MDMA] is kind of like that hippie, non-GMO [culture]… which is more preferable among seasoned partiers," Kufner told me, noting that the change could also be related to music genres and types of parties people take drugs at now versus in the past. "But if it's coming from China or India, where they make some of these drugs… it's not coming from a small chemistry lab, it's being mass-produced, and not by people who necessarily use it themselves or are part of the culture at all—they're just making drugs."

Typical gel capsules that MDMA is sold in today. Photo via Flickr user Bit Boy

Divergence from Purity

The mass production of drugs that Kufner spoke about is at least one of the ways that substances other than MDMA are getting into the gel capsules people are using today. Personally, I've confirmed the following psychoactive substances in capsules that I purchased as "MDMA" through testing kits or through an admission by the dealer after the fact: PMA, mephedrone, and MDA. Though some of these substances are similar molecularly to MDMA (also known as analogues), others, like mephedrone (also known as "meow meow"), can be dangerous. Of the sources interviewed for this article, in addition to echoing the finding some of the aforementioned substances, two mentioned also finding methylone commonly in their capsules. In fact, according to statistics collected by EcstasyData, an independent lab testing program that is part of Erowid, of the samples they've tested, including both pressed pills and MDMA capsules or powder, purity has actually gone down over the years. In 2001, just under half the samples the lab tested were found to contain only MDMA; last year, this percentage came in at 33 percent.

An M dealer in Toronto who has been active since the start of this decade and has almost exclusively sold capsules told me, "People don't want to feel unsafe, so they make up these sort of metrics in their heads to be able to have control over the situation, but really, they're taking their PMA or other chemicals," he said. "People really want to make sure what they're taking is pure MDMA, whereas that's something you don't find just lying around from your average dude—it's usually got something else in it."

Of the users and dealers interviewed for this piece, only one—who has been involved in the scene for over two decades—was sure he could get pressed pills if he wanted them this weekend, though all said they could find something being sold as MDMA capsules.

Though those precious pressed pills that have become more rare in the US and Canada may have their own issues, such as copycat versions that cropped up, they provide an advantage over the more common MDMA capsules: an appearance that shows serious distinction between batches, which assists greatly in identifying what you're about to swallow before you hit the dance floor. If there were two dealers at a party and one was selling orange peace signs and the other peddling purple ones with the Superman emblem, fellow ravers would be able to say the peace signs were pretty decent, whereas the purple ones were way too speedy.

Today, we've been reduced to pointing to a guy in the corner at a party and, at best, attempting to describe what the generic powder inside of our capsule we just got from him looked like. (Of course, it's completely possible he has multiple similar-looking substances ordered off the internet capped out in his pockets, not that we'd suggest this, since knowing your source is crucial to safe drug use.) It's undeniable that pressed pills posed their own risk of containing other drugs, but buying indistinct capsules or powder in a time when many similar-looking psychoactive substances are readily available on the internet has the potential to make rolling more dangerous. Chances are, if you've regularly taken a substance marketed as MDMA within the past decade, you've unknowingly sampled something other than the "pure" drug you were sold.

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