The “Molly” Misnomer

By Alice Toler

There’s yet another white powder on the black market that’s been killing club kids. Back when I was a child, cocaine was wrecking lives and causing fatal heart attacks in a small number of those who indulged; these days, the devil is named Molly. Four dead in New York, one dead in Virginia, one dead and two made gravely ill in Boston. The Electric Zoo music fest in New York was shut down by the mayor’s office after two concertgoers died. Politicians are making statements. Colleges are tweeting warnings to their students. Head­lines are screaming.

What is “molly”? The word is slang for “molecular MDMA.” An estimated 10-25 million people took MDMA at least once in 2008 (most recent statistics). The pharmaceutical, originally used for psychotherapeutic purposes, became popular as a recreational drug and was made illegal in the U.S. in 1986.

Molly is another name for ecstasy (also referred to as E, X, or XTC), all of which are, or began as, MDMA. As there is obviously no quality control available for the street-level consumer, over time some underground labs have adulterated their products with fillers ranging from caffeine to cocaine, or given the moniker to substances completely devoid of MDMA. MDPV, aka bath salts, infamous for causing panic attacks and psychosis, is sometimes sold as molly. So is methylone (a chemical implicated in kidney failure, muscle death and systemic blood clotting), BZP (benzylpiperazine, also implicated in kidney failure, psychosis and seizures), PMA (para-Methoxy­amphetamine, a related chemical which can cause vomiting, overheating, hallucinations and death), PMMA (a similar drug, also potentially fatal), and good old methamphetamine which, thanks to Walter White, should need no introduction.

In proper therapeutic doses, MDMA, aka molly, does none of the above.

As someone who has been following the progress of MDMA as a clinical treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I’ve become concerned about the public outcry and the re-demonization of a drug that shows a great deal of promise to help many people who are suffering gravely from the unremitting mental aftermath of war trauma, rape, child abuse and violent crime. A single session of MDMA-assisted clinical therapy can immediately and significantly re­duce symptoms of PTSD; as few as four sessions can effectively cure it.

An FDA-approved trial of MDMA conducted in 2008 showed that the drug was a safe and effective adjunct to psychotherapy for the small group of patients in the study. By the end of the study, 85% of the participants no longer tested out as suffering from clinical PTSD, as opposed to only 15% of the participants in the placebo group. Cur­rently, another study is investigating MDMA therapy for U.S. military veterans, and there are studies being conducted in Canada and Israel.

PTSD destroys lives. It drives those affected to withdraw from society, to abuse their loved ones, and sometimes to commit murder or suicide. This is not tolerable.

The fact that kids have died from taking what they think is MDMA is also intolerable, but it arises from a perfect storm of contributing factors:

We have a culture of isolation, where we are expected to live and work and compete with each other while housed in little separate boxes and interacting mainly through small glowing screens—we lack human interaction. We have the glamorization of the drug, sung about by stars who have actually taken high-quality MDMA and experienced its “entactogenic” and “empathogenic” effects that break down the isolation among humans, and who were obviously moved and felt their lives had been changed for the better. And finally, we have prohibition, which has driven the drug underground, where it is unregulated, created and supplied by people of more or less scruple, whose aim is more often than not to make as much money as possible.

At the same time, a major precursor chemical required for making MDMA, safrole, has become tightly regulated by the DEA and is much less available. The underground labs have turned to anethole, a different and unregulated precursor, which is used to make the much more dangerous PMA and PMMA. When Miley Cyrus sings about molly, she’s not singing about PMA — but that’s often what’s in that little baggie the guy at the club swore was “high-grade molly.”

The club kids know, if you take a single dose of MDMA and don’t feel the desired effect, you can usually take another dose without too much danger. However, if you double-dose on PMA or some of the other ersatz-molly powders, you just might die. One of the molly deaths at the Electric Zoo festival took six hits at once. This would be incredibly irresponsible with many substances, including genuine MDMA or, God forbid, Tylenol (acetominophen): That legal drug has killed 1,500 Americans in the last decade, de­spite debates ongoing since 1977. Accord­ing to the FDA, as few as 10 maximum-strength Tylenols a day—two more than the recommended maximum daily dose of eight—taken over several days can cause liver damage.

Perhaps D.A.R.E. plays a factor, as well: Kids who saw that adults were exaggerating the dangers of cannabis may have figured everything else we said was b.s., too.

Ninety years ago, people died by the hundreds from drinking bathtub gin and poisoned industrial alcohol, and of course you could (and can) still easily die from alcohol poisoning just as effectively if you drink the good stuff to extreme excess. Today, it’s fake MDMA taking some people out, but the social mechanism is the same. And in both situations, prohibition has played a role in endangering more people.

Your parents always told you not to take candy from strangers, and they were right—particularly right now, as the “candy” has become so popular that the market has become flooded with dangerous knockoffs.

In the name of harm reduction and all that is holy, if you are still going to take white powder you bought from some guy who knows some guy, then educate yourself first. has exhaustive information about MDMA and all of the molly-mimics that are currently on the market. Go there and read. sells basic test kits, and $20 could save a life.

I would personally love it if MDMA were an FDA-regulated, widely available therapy rather than an underground roll of the dice for kids who are just trying to dance their cares away, but we don’t live in that world yet. Be careful out there.

Useful links:


This article was originally published on September 29, 2013.