What's in Your Molly? Probably Not Just MDMA, Major New Study Reveals

Ecstasy—the common name for the chemical MDMA—is one of the most popular party drugs around, but what gets sold as ecstasy too often isn't. Websites such as Pill Reports have for years tracked pills adulterated with everything from meth and other amphetamines to piperazines, synthetic cathinones ("bath salts"), and other even less known drugs. These are unregulated mind-altering drugs that have become newly available on the market and are often intended to mimic the effects of traditional illegal drugs.

With the rise of Molly, which is often marketed as "pure" MDMA powder, people may think they're getting the real thing, but too often, they aren't. A just released study led by Joseph Palamar, assistant professor of Population Health at NYU's Langone Medical Center, presents some sobering results—and raises some interesting questions.

"Given the sharp rise in poisonings and recent deaths at dance festivals related to ecstasy use, research was needed to examine whether nightclub/festival attendees who use ecstasy or Molly have been unintentionally or unknowingly using 'bath salts,'" said Palamar. "Little is known about these new drugs and some may be more dangerous than MDMA."

Langone was looking for the presence of bath salts in hair samples taken from young adults outside nightclubs and festivals between last June and September. Participants had been surveyed about their whether they had ever knowingly used ecstasy, MDMA, or Molly, as well as whether they had ever knowingly used any of 35 listed bath salts or other new psychoactive substances.

A lot of people who thought they had never taken bath salts were in for a surprise.

"We collected hair samples from about a quarter of the survey sample to be tested for novel drugs. Among those who reported no use of bath salts or unknown powders or pills, four out of 10 tested positive for bath salts and/or other novel drugs," said Palamar. "One sample also tested positive for alpha-PVP—the strong stimulant known as 'Flakka' that has made headlines in the last year. A lot of people laughed when they gave us their hair saying things like 'I don’t use bath salts; I’m not a zombie who eats people’s faces.' Yet our findings suggest many of these people have been using bath salts without realizing it."

And they didn't turn into face-chewing zombies, either. Could it be that the zombifying qualities of bath salts are overstated?

Quite possibly. In Britain, the bath salts drug mephedrone is quite popular on the club scene, where it's known as Meow Meow or M-Cat. British clubbers stoked on mephedrone display remarkably similar behaviors to American clubbers rolling on ecstasy.

Still, said Palamar, caution is warranted.

"Ecstasy wasn’t always such a dangerous drug, but it is becoming increasingly risky because it has become so adulterated with new drugs that users and the scientific community alike know very little about," said Palamar. "Users need to be aware that what they are taking may not be MDMA."

As a public health specialist, Palamar recommends abstaining, but he understands that tens if not hundreds of thousands of young people are going to ignore that advice every weekend. For them, his harm reduction-oriented message is: Be smart about it.

"As Molly is becoming a much riskier substance, I really hope that those who decide to use educate themselves about what they’re doing," Palamar said. "While it is safest to avoid use, test kits are available online for those who decide to use, and want to ensure that they’re taking real MDMA and not a new synthetic stimulant such as Flakka."

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