Good Golly Miss Molly
My favorite recreational drug has been thoroughly maligned in the press recently. Two or three young people have died at music events, apparently of overdoses of a “new” drug known as “Molly”. Molly was claimed to be an unusually pure version of the fad club drug of the 1980s and ‘90s: Ecstasy. As is usual with drug stories, these reports were false and hysterically overdrawn; and they were false and hysterical in ways that repeat many other drug Prohibition tales.
But first comes a brief explanation of the drug known as Ecstasy. Ecstasy (Eve, E, or X) is methylenedioxy-N-methamphetamine (usually known by the abbreviation MDMA). It is a fairly old chemical, discovered in the 1910s, at about the same time as the related compound methamphetamine. MDMA was ignored until the 1970s when Alexander Shulgin examined it as part of his extended study of psychedelics. Psychotherapists were quick to pick up on its value and were using MDMA in couples therapy. Grief counseling, and end-of-life preparation. After the DEA placed the drug in Schedule I, the use continued in other countries, and it is completing Stage III clinical trials for FDA approval now for use in treating PTSD.
The same effects of MDMA that make it useful for therapy also make it attractive as a recreational drug – increased empathy, expansive and relaxed mood, and heightened sensation (combined these features show why it is frequently called the “hug drug”). Additionally, its physiological effects preclude addiction. Since it depletes the brain’s supply of serotonin, additional doses have no effect. By the early 1980s it was common in dance clubs in Dallas and Austin. When the clubs themselves began selling it to their patrons and accepting credit cards for payment, the DEA rushed into an emergency scheduling procedure and placed MDMA in Schedule I. In the meantime, use of MDMA spread to raves – large (thousands of attendees) all-night dance parties, all across the U. S. and over to Europe. The Netherlands became the center of its manufacture. This explosion in use was occurring while the DEA was rapidly enforcing its new powers against the drug.
Soon reports began appearing in the media alarming over Ecstasy “overdose” deaths. Investigation revealed that those deaths were from heat exhaustion brought on by hours of dancing in close, overheated quarters without sufficient hydration. Since MDMA does slightly impair the body’s heat regulation, it was a slight contributory cause of these deaths, but as the dance venues responded by providing cooling-off areas and access to water and as users learned the importance of hydration, these deaths disappeared (ironically, at least one subsequent death was attributed to water overdose – yes, one can kill himself by ODing on water – by a young woman who took the warnings too seriously. During the same time period, more high school and college football players died of heat exhaustion during practice than died after taking MDMA.
As the DEA began enforcing its new ban on MDMA, the overt quasi-legal manufacturers in the Netherlands were suppressed and replaced by myriads of small, shady. Fly-by-night operations. Counterfeits and adulterants became frequent, methamphetamine and DXM, the cough syrup ingredient used by many children as a weak hallucinogen, were among the most common.
The story now circles back to Miss Molly. When follow-up stories examined the Molly scare, they found the incidents had nothing to do with MDMA. Molly was a distinct synthetic chemical named ME-2, not related to MDMA except by marketing devices; and the deaths had nothing to do with MDMA.
The substitution of lethal ME-2 for benign MDMA repeats a sad dreary refrain recurring throughout the history of Prohibition. During the 1920s, thousands died and many thousands were sickened or maimed by jakeleg and sterno or by adulterated alcohol (intentionally denatured by the government with known poisons). Many – if not most – of the heroin deaths reported during the last century have been caused by adulterants or substitutions (one notorious epidemic was caused by the substitution of fentanyl for heroin). Marijuana users know what has happened when dangerous chemicals have been marketed as “synthetic” marijuana. Black markets have no chemical control; street-corner pushers are not inspected by the FDA. When Prohibitionists are confronted with these predictable and sure results of their imposed morality, they merely shrug and say, “They did it to themselves. They should have obeyed the law and abstained.” The alcohol Prohibitionists even forced the government to use a more toxic denaturant so that drinking would be even more deadly.
The Molly incidents also renewed a frequent Prohibitionist propaganda ploy. Molly was described as a purer and stronger form of MDMA, and therefore more deadly. The story was first told about heroin being stronger and more deadly than morphine. These doom-sayers proclaimed crack as a more deadly and addictive form of cocaine. Meth is decried as much worse than its urbane brother, amphetamine. And of course, their current cry is “It’s not your grandfather’s marijuana.” Fear is apparently a classically addictive substance: its compulsive users exhibit tolerance. They need larger and larger fixes to get the same result.
The Molly stories did not reveal a threat either to the youth of the nation or to public health. Both of those could easily be achieved by legalizing and regulating MDMA. What they did was provide another sad chapter in the irrational and destructive history of Prohibitionism. Now is the time to replace myth and hysteria by a factual accounting of what is really happening.
 PERSONAL DISCLAIMER: MDMA is my favorite recreational drug. For several years in the mid-90s I used it often – about once or twice a month. I stopped when counterfeits became so common that the risk of use was simply too high.