Why Is Everyone Freaking Out About MDMA?

MDMA has caused something of a stir here in the US recently. Ever since Miley bragged about "dancing with molly" like one of those tedious nerds who brags about ripping bongs for breakfast, columnists have had a field day analyzing why we've all fallen...

Danny McDonald

Some MDMA (Photo via)

MDMA has caused something of a stir here in the US recently. Ever since Miley bragged about "dancing with molly," like one of those tedious nerds who brags about ripping bongs for breakfast, columnists have had a field day analyzing why we've all fallen in love with MDMA. And policy makers, concerned after a spate of MDMA-related fatalities hit the headlines, have also started to take notice.

As you might expect, not everyone has taken a deep breath, put things into perspective, and reacted in a calm, rational manner. My alma mater, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has canceled all EDM shows on campus. They don’t want to deal with the negative headlines and potential lawsuits that come hand-in-hand with a molly overdose. Our federal lawmakers even managed to notice the drug as they staged their drawn out game of financial and political brinksmanship.

Crusty old deans and decrepit politicians fretting about whatever drugs the youth are into is no surprise, but I was a little concerned at the attitude of a drug dealer we’ll call "Tommy" I met in a Boston bar and his thoughts on what he’s selling. Despite the fact that he pushes significant amounts of narcotics, has women offer him blowjobs in exchange for coke, and has to say "no" to people who just want to give him their actual pay checks and stolen Playstations for his products, Tommy sounded as conservative as the politicians when it came to Molly.

"I wouldn’t take it because I have no idea what’s in there. I think, if you take this stuff, you’re insane, as far as I’m concerned," he said in between sips of lemonade.

Image of Pretty Lights, one of the acts that UMass Amherst canceled, by Alex Hertel. (Photo via)

Drug policy experts say the overdoses are tied to the MDMA being cut with synthetic drugs and sold as the real thing. Illegal drugs getting cut with something else you'd never knowingly put inside your body is nothing new, but some are speculating that molly demand is outstripping supply and drug manufacturers are diluting the product with synthetic cathinones—the stimulant that's most often associated with mephedrone—to meet the demand. The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), meanwhile, is saying that it has seized less MDMA and ecstasy in recent years.

So why is there an increased demand? Tommy points to rappers like French Montana and Lil Wayne glorifying the drug in their songs, which would be laughably simplistic, if it wasn’t the best explanation anyone has offered to date. Others point to the increased nationwide interest in EDM. Anecdotally, Tommy says he has noticed a significant increase in demand during the last two years; some of his customers who previously preferred cocaine now only buy molly. Being an illicit drug, MDMA use is nearly impossible to document empirically, but many drug policy experts agree with Tommy’s assessment: demand is up and no one (or no one in a position to tell) is quite sure what's in the product being marketed as molly.

Stefanie Jones, the event manager at the US-based Drug Policy Alliance, told me, "I think that’s why we’re seeing more negative outcomes, more overdoses, because if you have molly that is being cut with these adulterants, it’s going to exacerbate some of the effects that are less common with pure MDMA."

"Do I think new research chemicals play a role [in the recent overdoses]? Probably, yes. They tend to be more harmful," says Missi Wooldridge, executive director of Dance Safe, a non-profit organization that promotes safety in the EDM community by offering drug testing kits at concerts, among other initiatives.

So where does that leave us? Some progressive drug policy experts say that the US government could benefit from looking at New Zealand, where the Parliament has just passed a law that tests all synthetic drugs. Ross Bell, executive director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation, told me that manufacturers of synthetic drugs in his country can now submit to a series of tests, comparable to pharmaceutical trials. If the product is deemed safe for consumption, manufacturers can sell it on the open market. (Sales to minors are illegal under the new legislation.)

But this is America. We don’t really do level-headedness when it comes to reacting to drug trends. The federal government is nowhere near legalizing MDMA, never mind a bunch of newfangled research chemicals that archaic senators like Orrin Hatch have never heard of. So it's hard to see how the New Zealand model would work politically or be applicable to the current problem of molly being cut with particularly harmful adulterants.

Some more MDMA, this time next to a fun key, presumably to help take the MDMA. (Photo via)

Congress already attempted to outlaw some synthetic drugs last year. But manufacturers and traffickers simply changed the chemical make-up of the newly illegal drugs to circumvent the law, creating drugs that were facsimiles of ecstasy, coke, and acid, among others.

Nevertheless, we’ll likely see an escalation in the War on Drugs to the endless chagrin of drug policy experts. The authorities could go even further and try and criminalize the culture in a broader sense. Look at what happened to the rave scene in the country in the early half of the last decade, when law enforcement cracked down on ecstasy sales and possession. Arrests increased, sentencing terms for ecstasy crimes were lengthened, and so-called crack house laws were repurposed so that promoters and organizers of raves and warehouse parties could be treated as if they were operating crack houses, meaning that they are legally responsible if someone overdoses in their venue. That changed the electronic music scene in the US considerably, says Jones—licensed raves became unlicensed house parties, festivals became much more prevalent and important. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” she says.

Jones thinks there will be an attempt at prohibition tactics, but the government may have an even harder time breaking the link between drugs and EDM culture than they did ten years ago. Thanks to promoters becoming more savvy and their business models becoming more complex, it's made it more difficult for law enforcement to find them legally culpable for drug-related crimes that take place at venues.

Now, Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, wants to establish an inter-agency committee of scientists to stay on top of the new synthetic drugs and maintain a list of which drugs should be considered illegal. The legislation would then make it illegal to import the substances on the list for human consumption.

Making more drugs illegal, however, is not the answer, according to Wooldridge. “The reason people are coming up with new chemicals is because the ones we know about are illegal,” she says. “We should regulate for health and safety. Everyone should know the dosages, know the risks. Decriminalize what we have—the ones we know about. And all the funding we have in this drug war should go into researching and finding out the best practices in health, prevention, treatment, and recovery.”

Follow Danny on Twitter: @DMacCash

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