You may have heard that last weekend, a dozen students at Wesleyan University were hospitalized after taking a bad batch of "molly," an illicit drug that's recently become a hit on college campuses. Two of them ended up in critical condition, according to the Washington Post, and four were arrested and suspended from school.
In case you're not familiar with the drug, we've put together a little primer.
What is molly?
You may have actually heard of molly by one of its other names, ecstasy or X. Across the pond, in the U.K., it can go by "mandy." Its technical name, though, is MDMA, short for 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine. (Many people think that molly is a pure form of MDMA; however, in recent years, other synthetic drugs have begun to be substituted for MDMA, so you can never really be sure exactly what you're getting. One 2013 test of more than 300 pills sold as molly found that only 28 percent were pure MDMA, while 13 percent contained MDMA and another drug, and 32 percent had no MDMA in them.)
What does molly do?
MDMA acts both as a stimulant and psychoactive drug. It usually comes in capsule or tablet form. Its effects often last up to about six hours, but people sometimes end up mixing it with other drugs or taking multiple doses—and that's what can be dangerous. Several news outlets reported that the Wesleyan students had overdosed on the drug, so it's possible some of them could have taken molly more than once.
This isn't the first time something like this has happened. In 2013, for example, 20-year-old Olivia Rotondo died at a music festival. Reportedly, her last words were: “I just took six hits of molly.”
Why is molly popular at raves?
Molly has similar effects to other drugs, namely stimulants like amphetamine or the hallucinogen mescaline, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Like other types of amphetamines, it can make you feel more energetic and alert. But it can also make you feel dehydrated and sweaty and make you grind your teeth. Your motor and reasoning skills may decline.
So, why is it so popular among ravers, then? Well, it's simple: molly makes you feel kind of giddy.
It does that by releasing several neurotransmitters—the molecules your brain cells use to communicate with each other—in the brain. Namely, it affects the serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine systems.
Many of Molly's feel-good effects are probably the result of your brain flooding with serotonin, a neurotransmitter closely associated with mood. When serotonin is unleashed, though, that can have secondary effects—like the downstream release of oxytocin and vasopressin, two hormones involved in love and sexual arousal.
"This may account for the characteristic feelings of emotional closeness and empathy produced by the drug; studies in both rats and humans have shown that MDMA raises the levels of these hormones," according to NIDA.
That all sounds great. So what's the big deal?
Well, what goes up must come down. Your brain doesn't produce unlimited amounts of serotonin, so after you experience the serotonin spike, you're going to be in a serotonin deficit for a while. That means feeling confused, depressed, and anxious. Some people also have trouble sleeping. This may or may not happen right away—some of these effects can come on days or even weeks later.
Plus, remember vasopressin—the love/sexual-arousal-related hormone that serotonin helps to release? Well, it turns out that it's also involved in regulating blood pressure by constricting blood vessels. When you have more vasopressin in your system, your blood pressure spikes. So taking molly can put you in greater danger if you already have cardiovascular problems.
Is it addictive?
Scientists aren't sure whether molly is addictive. What we do know is that some people have reported "symptoms of dependence, including continued use despite knowledge of physical or psychological harm, tolerance (or diminished response), and withdrawal effects," according to NIDA. It's also important to note that molly affects some of the same neurotransmitter systems as other addictive drugs.
How can you have a "bad batch?"
In some cases, molly isn't pure 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine. It can be laced with other substances, like cocaine, ketamine, cough suppressants, caffeine, methamphetamine, and new synthetic drugs called "bath salts." In 2011, a Minneapolis Star Tribune investigation highlighted how dangerous bath salts were. Several teens in Minnesota had died or ended up in the hospital after taking these drugs.
It's unclear at this time what other substances might have been in the hits of molly the Wesleyan students took over the weekend, but police have some evidence that it wasn't pure.
“This particular batch may have had a mixture of several kinds of designer drug chemicals, making the health risks unpredictable and treatment to combat the effects complex and problematic,” said Middletown Police Chief William McKenna, according to the Washington Post.
When did it get so popular at colleges?
Molly, ecstasy, MDMA—whatever you want to call it—has been around a long time. In the 1970s, MDMA was actually used in psychotherapy. (Big caveat: its therapeutic value hadn't really been tested and its use never had approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which oversees medications.)
Now, the drug has made a comeback at colleges, in part because there's misconception among young people that the drug is safe. That's clearly not the case, as the hospitalizations of the 12 Wesleyan students have shown. But NIDA director Dr. Nora Volkow also warns:
MDMA is not new to the scientific community, as many laboratories began investigating this drug in the 1980s, and the picture emerging from their efforts is of a drug that is far from benign. For example, MDMA can cause a dangerous increase in body temperature that can lead to kidney failure. MDMA can also increase heart rate, blood pressure, and heart wall stress. Animal studies show that MDMA can damage specific neurons in the brain. In humans, the research is not conclusive at this time; however, a number of studies show that long-term, heavy MDMA users suffer cognitive deficits, including problems with memory.
Last question: is there any special lingo I should use to talk about molly with the ravers in my life?
Glad you asked. Typically, people talk about "popping molly" rather than "doing molly" or "taking molly" — mostly because "pop molly" was a lyric in a Jay-Z song. But be careful: sticklers might point out that "popping" usually refers to taking pills. If your friend's molly is in powdered form (which it often is), you might encourage him or her to stick with something more scientifically accurate, like, "I am going to a rave tonight, and I plan on placing 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine into my bloodstream."
Kevin Roose contributed reporting.
Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.