MDMA Is Getting Super Popular Among Rich, Young Indians

The “cooler” party drug is gaining momentum with a generation using it as a quick fix for mental health concerns and social anxiety, as well as to gain social cachet in a cut-throat job market.
mdma molly ecsta
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An electronic dance music festival in a desert in India was reason enough for Paresh to step out of his cocoon. 

Paresh – not his real name – preferred to go with a pseudonym so he could talk freely to us about his experiences with a drug classified as illegal in India. The 26-year-old Mumbai-based graphic designer chose to attend the festival on his own that night. But the vibes were off. It didn’t help that an indie artist somewhere in the distance was remixing one of his favourite dance music tunes — Red Lights by Tiësto — and butchering it. 


“I stepped into a different part of the desert [to listen to] the new artists and the music paused for a bit,” Paresh told VICE. “I [met] a friend of mine who was dancing alone. I was clearly jealous that [she could vibe] without the music; that’s when she offered me some E.” 

“E” is one of the street names for Ecstacy, another name for MDMA in tablet or capsule form. MDMA is 3,4 -Methyl​enedioxy​-methamphetamine, a potent drug with stimulating and psychedelic properties. A popular drug at raves and concerts, MDMA has been proven to increase the release of the brain chemicals serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. 

Effects of using MDMA include increased sensitivity to sound and colour, a heightened sense of touch, and a surge in energy levels. The drug is also known to boost mood and feelings of overall well-being, including tranquillity, trust, and empathy, which is partly why it earned its reputation as the “love drug.” Referred to as Molly in crystal form, it can be taken orally, snorted, smoked or injected. It usually takes around 30 minutes to kick in with effects lasting up to four hours or so, depending on the purity and dosage.

For Paresh, an avowed pot smoker, the idea of consuming hard drugs was out of the question. He had witnessed first-hand the disastrous effects of abusing intoxicants — his childhood friend had almost OD-ed on a cheap variant of a synthetic opioid, and he was in a four-year relationship with someone who regularly abused alcohol. 


But, as Paresh said, “it was one of those nights when everything was going wrong. So, I thought I might as well knock myself off. It didn’t disappoint because it was ideal for a music festival in the way it made me feel – like I was floating on air with nothing shitty weighing me down. Although I tried it only once after that festival, I realised that this one definitely has a way to cheer you up.” 

According to a research report published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, MDMA was originally developed in 1912 by a German pharmaceutical company as a “parent compound to synthesize medications that control bleeding.” 

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, despite the drug not having undergone formal clinical trials nor having received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it had gained a small following among psychiatrists who believed that it helped patients gain insights into their problems. During this time, it quickly made its way onto the streets in the U.S. and Europe. In 1985, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) declared an emergency ban on MDMA, categorising it as a Schedule I drug, defined as “substances with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

MDMA is part of a group of synthetic drugs classified as amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS). Meth (slang for methamphetamine), as well as ice and speed (both different forms of meth) also fall under the same category. These drugs are psychostimulants, psychotropic substances that have the capacity to stimulate the central nervous system causing a boost in mood, as well as an increase in arousal, excitement, and alertness levels.


The “cool” drug

According to a 2015 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime
(UNODC), the use of MDMA, and other amphetamine-type stimulants has only grown over the years in India. 

Factors behind this rise in the use of ecstasy and similar drugs (meth and ephedrine), in India, include curiosity (the highest at 57 percent) and peer influence (17 percent) during the initiation stage, as per the report. Interestingly, 93 percent of respondents polled said that they had used ecstasy and similar drugs before or during sex. The appeal of MDMA and similar drugs in urban areas is also attributed to the perception of these drugs as being “cooler and more fashionable.” 

Most participants in this study were in their early twenties. The users among them said that a general feeling of euphoria and happiness accompanies the use of MDMA, making it very attractive and deeply desirable to consume. Many users said that using the drug made them feel “confident” and, unlike heroin, it gave them a lot of energy.

The cooler tag is linked with the drug’s heftier price tags compared to the other drugs more commonly used in India. A gram of MDMA costs around Rs 6,500 ($78), as opposed to local variants of weed such as sheelavathi which is sold for around Rs 1,000 ($12) for 100 grams. There are also reports that MDMA is replacing other desi highs such as bhang (made from the leaves of the cannabis plant), often consumed in the Hindu festival Holi. 


VICE reached out to the UNODC for a comment, but they declined citing ongoing work commitments. However, Samarth Pathak, the Communications and Advocacy Lead from UNODC, shared the recently released World Drug Report 2022. Booklet 4 in the report titled Drug market trends of Cocaine, Amphetamine-type stimulants and New Psychoactive Substances, highlights the global supply chain of ecstasy, mentioning Asia as the “likely home to the highest number of users (estimated at over 10 million), despite the prevalence of ecstasy use among the general population of the region being below the global average (at 0.3 per cent).” An earlier report had stated that the rise in ATS in certain parts of Asia could be attributed to upward social mobility and globalisation. 

The perception of ecstasy as a cool and fashionable drug in the eyes of India’s youth was corroborated by police inspector Saadik Pasha, who handled cases related to MDMA during his time as a Station House Officer of Marathahalli, an eastern suburb in the city of Bengaluru in the southern state of Karnataka, India, from December 2017 to Jan 2019. Presently, Pasha works with the Central Crime Branch of Bengaluru in the Economics Crimes Wing. 


“Bengaluru is a young and truly cosmopolitan city because a lot of cultures converge here,” he told VICE. “MDMA is more expensive [than other drugs]. It is perceived as being an elite and cool party drug, and you will [find] it is [largely] abused in elite sections of society. Its use has grown exponentially over the years.”

According to Pasha, there is a growing section of middle-class youth in India that consumes MDMA at parties and on other social occasions, as they are “affected by their richer friends.” But when middle-class young consumers are caught with their rich friends, don’t the rich usually get away minus the consequences? 

“Maybe one or two times the rich will escape due to a few black sheep in the force,” Pasha acknowledged. “But on the whole, the rich cannot escape the strong arms of the law.” However, studies or even most Indians would not agree with this statement.

Pasha added that the rich, who are frequent consumers of ecstasy, do not fall for adulterated variants of the drug, for the simple reason that they procure it from reliable sources and will know if their drug is spiked or adulterated. usually, MDMA can carry the risk of being spiked with bath salts and other dangerous synthetic chemicals though, in India, there’s no comprehensive research that’s been done to gauge the adulteration. “It’s the new consumers who probably want to break into the rich circles that are usually vulnerable to contaminated ecstasy.” 


But how often do people fall for MDMA and its “cool” tag? Why is the idea of being cool and fashionable associated with drugs and the rich? Are certain people more vulnerable than others? How influential are the kind of friends one chooses to hang out with? 

According to Mumbai-based psychiatrist Anjali Chhabria, who has worked with MDMA users, while there are various reasons one might use the drug, there is a section of youth that wants to climb the social ladder and believes that one way to do that is through networking with friends who are richer and likely to have more social access. They imagine that if they can have “fun” together, they will “stick together” and “get work.” 

“Not everyone gravitates towards stimulants like MDMA to get work, of course,” she said. “There could also be a section of people [experiencing] anxiety and stress who want to feel better or [those who] have personality disorders such as adult Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), where the need to experiment with these drugs will be much [greater].”

To Chhabria’s point, MDMA use “produced subjective prosocial effects, including feelings of being more open, talkative, and closer to others,” according to a 2012 study that concluded that the drug “may enhance social approach behaviour and sociability when MDMA is used recreationally and facilitate therapeutic relationships in MDMA-assisted psychotherapeutic settings.”


Chhabria said that beyond the superficial, judgemental gaze of society towards users, it becomes crucial to understand the core reasons behind consuming MDMA. “Are they consuming it because they are depressed and they want to feel happy? Or do they feel they are not achievers and thus want to be known as the cool people who party hard and are the last ones to leave the horse stable? So, we try to treat the underlying disorders, if any, or help them work on their sense of identity if that’s where the conflict arises.”

She also clarified that there is an important distinction to be made between experimental drug use (when one tries the drug a few times but is not yet addicted) and habitual drug use (when one is addicted). 

Across the world, there is growing evidence supporting Chhabria’s contention that young people might be resorting to party drugs such as MDMA to “regulate” their depression, low self-esteem issues, or to just deal with the many curveballs life throws at them. For a previous VICE story, 19-year-old Emily from the UK resorted to MDMA because she was “overwhelmed with the stress of adulthood.” 

Similarly, Ami – a law student from Mumbai currently studying in Kolkata – told us that the only time she has felt “calm and in control” over the past year or so has been while consuming psychoactive substances. “I obviously know the implications of this professionally but personally, I feel a lot closer to stability and sanity when my friends and I go on MD[MA] binges every few months. For a while, I can forget about everything messed up in my life and the world at large.”


Expanding networks

The UNODC report details how the production of ecstasy pills is growing in makeshift Indian labs. According to a 2016 investigation by India Today, party drugs such as MDMA are being manufactured in India in factories posing as pharmaceutical units. These factories managed to slip under the police radar and continued to operate, as they had legit licences to manufacture legal medicines. 

The inflow of MDMA and ecstasy pills from foreign countries also continues. In July 2020, customs officials in the southern city of Chennai in India seized four postal parcels that arrived from Germany and the Netherlands, containing 276 ecstasy pills. According to an estimate by Outlook Magazine, one pill is roughly priced around Rs 1,200 ($15), thus bringing the total cost of the seized consignment in Chennai to Rs 260,400 ($3,157).


As far as the wider network of the drug is concerned, Pasha acknowledges that it’s indeed a difficult network to crack because ecstasy tablets can be easily smuggled due to their compact size and because these networks are very well-oiled in their workings. In August 2020, officials seized 3,056 ecstasy pills from Mumbai packed in cartons containing soft toys. In the same year, nearly two kilos of ecstasy pills worth over $120,000 were seized from Bengaluru. The pills were discovered smuggled inside an electric massager. According to a 2021 report by the Tech Transparency Project, Instagram also makes it easier for teens globally to locate sources for MDMA. The report explains how, even though the hashtag MDMA is banned, users can still search for terms like “#mdmamolly” which bypasses Instagram’s security filters and leads them to MDMA dealers, or even scammers. 

Arhaan, who preferred not to share his real name because of the legal implications surrounding MDMA use, distribution, and possession in India, is an entrepreneur who owns various clubs across the Greater Kailash and Vasant Kunj areas in Delhi, the capital city of India. He told VICE that most club owners have an unsaid rule that those in possession of ecstasy tablets need to be invisible. 


“In Bollywood movies, they show parties where ecstasy tablets are served on trays, and I’d like to tell you [that] nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “[While] this does not mean that ecstasy isn’t consumed, most club owners will never be in direct contact with peddlers or consumers, on any level, because there is too much at risk in terms of losing our licences and being dragged into the courts for years.”

In his clubs, Arhaan follows the don’t-look-don’t-ask policy when it comes to the consumption of ecstasy and other party drugs. “In my clubs, smoking pot is out of the question because of the smell. But people often wash down ecstasy tablets with alcohol, so it’s not like they want to be seen consuming it,” he said, elaborating on how users tend to be discreet while using the drug. He claimed that there hasn’t been a single case of any of his patrons being caught consuming or possessing ecstasy or MDMA in his clubs. 

If anyone does get caught even in possession of MDMA and its variants, the punishment is certainly not light. Advait Tamhankar, an advocate who has worked on various drug-related cases, told VICE that MDMA is a scheduled drug under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985, at serial number 134 where it is also referred to as Ecstasy. 

“Anyone found in possession of MDMA above 10 grams is looking at a punishment for a minimum of 10 years and max 20 years,” he said. “And the punishment for consumption that is below 0.5 grams would be a maximum of a year. There is no minimum punishment, but anything between 0.5 to 10 grams of MDMA is a maximum of 10 years with no minimum term prescribed under the Act. There is also a fine prescribed under the Act going up to Rs 200,000 ($2,500).” 


On the other side of use

After a seven-month stint in rehab for ecstasy abuse that included psychological counselling, taking meds for her anxiety, rediscovering old hobbies, and having a daily routine, Malini, 23 – who preferred not to share her real name as her struggles are not yet public – has resumed writing poetry. Not for her jaded exes, or her parents who she believed messed up her childhood but, first and foremost, for herself.

“Wolfing down ecstasy pills was synonymous with a crazy weekend for a year, so yeah, it has been quite a journey being clean,” she said. “It’s funny because one of the street names of MDMA is ‘Clarity’ and, in a weird way, it has given me a lot of that.”

Malini often paired ecstasy pills with alcohol – a near-lethal combination that allegedly claimed the life of an Indian politician recently. Once Malini’s high would subside, she’d break out in hives, sweat excessively, and experience a spike in heart rate. Other side effects of moderate use include decreased appetite, depression, sleep problems, and anxiety. More pronounced health effects from regular use can include involuntary jaw clenching, lack of appetite, detachment from oneself (depersonalisation), illogical or disorganised thoughts, restless legs, nausea, hot flashes or chills, headache, and muscle or joint stiffness.

Although cases of MDMA abuse or overdosing rarely make headlines in India, they do exist. Debojit Majumdar, who works with the Roar Wellness Rehabilitation Center, located in the posh locality of Delhi’s DLF Chattarpur Farms, told VICE that two of the ten cases in the past few months related to drug abuse have involved MDMA in some capacity. 

“In most cases, reasons are related to curiosity, wanting to be part of the party circuit or a peer group,” he said. “But we look at addiction [on] a broader spectrum. There are patients who are here for a combination of weed and ecstasy or alcohol addiction with ecstasy.” 

The rehabilitation programme for MDMA patients, Majumdar said, varies on a case-by-case basis. While some patients experience high levels of psychosis where they lose touch with reality, others need psychological counselling for anxiety and depression, and maybe even adult ADHD as mentioned by Chhabria earlier in the story. 

Beyond the moral, legal, and psychological aspects behind the rise of MDMA in India, it becomes perhaps all the more critical to understand our role as a society, and the country at large, in not failing our youth. 

When it comes to music festivals, such as the one attended by Paresh where he first consumed ecstasy, on-site testing of drugs can save lives. At the Mutiny Festival, in Portsmouth, Britain, in 2018, an 18-year-old, Georgia, died after consuming high-strength MDMA. In wake of new research from drug-checking charity, The Loop and Liverpool University, that suggested how testing doesn't lead to more drugs being taken, Georgia’s mother recently told the BBC that her death could have been prevented if there were measures for on-site drug testing at the festival.

“When it comes to India, we don’t have open conversations around [chemical] substances and why people use them,” said Kripi Malviya, a Gurugram-based psychotherapist who specialises in addiction. “The only conversation we have is around legality and morality, which makes it very difficult for people to make informed decisions such as testing their drugs [for adulteration] or seeking help when they have panic attacks. All this causes more harm than the substance itself.”

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