The Truth About Molly

It’s All Good With Molly

I’m sitting in Mike’s office, staring across a table full of beer bottles, cocktail glasses and ashtrays filled with lipstick-covered cigarette butts. A large bong dominates the center of the table, and baggies and bottles of weed are scattered around the islands of dirty dishes. Mike manages a small club in Portland, OR; people stream in and out of his office all day long. Cooks, waiters, bartenders, waitresses, band members, groupies, security, delivery crews — all sorts of people. Mike is technically a drug dealer: He sells alcohol to the hipsters who come to his club, and he makes good money doing it. But the drugs on the table are not his — they just turn up in the club and get left behind.

Under a pile of dirty plates, I find a small, unlabeled baggie of white powder, maybe a single snort of something. “What’s this?” I ask Mike. He looks at me and shrugs. “It’s molly,” he says. I smell it; it doesn’t smell right. “This might be bath salts,” I say. “Maybe,”

Mike replies. “Molly, bath salts — what’s the difference?”

Mike is joking, of course; he knows the difference. But when it comes to random white powder in an unmarked bag, the difference is not obvious. I look around the table and come up with another little bag with two clear gelcaps containing a brownish-yellow powder.  “Then what’s this?” I ask. “Oh, that’s molly,” he says again. “At least I think it is. I honestly don’t know. It comes around because the girls take it instead of drinking to stay skinny. I really don’t like having it around.”

This conversation sums up the state of molly today. Even though Mike has done many drugs, he still isn’t sure if molly and ecstasy are the same thing. He tells me he thinks molly is pure MDMA, and that E or X is a random party pill that could be anything, including MDMA. I tell him there are testing kits for pure MDMA, but he doesn’t care. The party kids at his club probably don’t care, either. Whether it’s a powder or gelcap, they call it “molly,” whatever it might be, and molly is what everyone wants.

I don’t tell Mike that most molly is not MDMA — it’s more often methylone (sometimes called “bath salts”) or a designer blend of caffeine and unscheduled research chemicals. At last count, there were at least 35 different psychoactive chemicals in any number of blends being sold as molly. In any other market, such brand corruption would not be tol- erated, but for some reason, with molly, it’s all good.

A Kinder, Gentler Psychedelic

I’m an old-school MDMA purist — to me, “E” means MDMA and nothing else. MDMA is a psychedelic, but it’s not hallucinogenic or disorienting like LSD or mushrooms. It brings on a unique, groovy, head-opening euphoria. It’s not surprising that MDMA picked up a sexy street name like “ecstasy” as well as a cutesy nickname like “molly.” At one time, “molly” meant pure MDMA, but now it can be any psychoactive powder in a gelcap. For many drug users, the potential risks of taking a strange white powder might be a dealbreaker, but in the molly world, normal rules do not apply. Rolling on molly is a fashion statement. It makes you cool; it demonstrates that you’re down with hedonism and sensuality, that you’re free to do whatever you wish any old time. Does it matter if you’re really doing bath salts or meth? If it delivers a euphoric rush, how would you even know the difference?

MDMA is the drug of choice for the rave and festival crowd. It exploded onto the gay club scene in the 1980s as “Adam” and then quickly morphed into “ecstasy,” “E,” “X,” or “XTC” in the ’90s. It is an amphetamine stimulant, good for dancing all night to disco, house, trance, dubstep or EDM (depending on your decade). It also floods the brain with serotonin, creating a transcendental, almost mystical sense of peace and contentment. Oxytocin (a hormone related to love and bonding) rushes through the body like a warm ooze. Fear is gone, love rules, the world is young and beautiful again, and everything is possible.

MDMA is pure bliss in a pill — the legendary Soma of both religious myth and cracked-out science fiction. The MDMA experience is like an orgasm wrapped in a cuddle rolled in a warm blanket embraced by an all-forgiving hug from gentle Mother Universe. It instantly turns those you’re rolling with into the most beautiful people on earth.

MDMA Before Molly

“Molly” first appeared on Internet chat boards as slang for MDMA in 2002, but the term supposedly originated on the jam-band circuit in the mid-1990s. “Molly” (short for “molecule”) was the name for powdered MDMA cut fine so you could snort it. Snorting MDMA gives it a different feel: If you snort under the rush line, it works very much like a bump of speed with a groovy kick. But if you snort over the rush line, you suddenly bloom into a Buddha head with halos of golden liquid and angel feathers tickling the nape of your neck. MDMA has a very dose-specific effect; you need to take enough to get you over the rush line, and then you’re off and rolling.

And if you start rolling too hard? Snort a bump of cocaine and watch the halos disappear; the floor suddenly hits the bottoms of your feet. Although mixing stimulants is not advised, the rolling mechanics of snorted MDMA were not well understood until molly hit the scene. Now snorting it is as common as taking it in a pill.

MDMA was originally synthesized by Merck in 1912, but the first academic paper on its psychoactive effects didn’t appear until 1978, when Alexander Shulgin and David E. Nichols rediscovered the compound as an underground recreational drug. Around that time, MDMA began to circulate throughout the club scene, entering public consciousness under the name “ecstasy” circa 1982. Those were the golden days of ecstasy: It was legal for a brief period (until 1985), and that was plenty of time for it to make a worldwide name for itself. After it became illegal, the drug simply went underground on the all-night party scene, and in the 1990s the rave era made “ecstasy” a household name. In fact, the 1990s were so saturated with MDMA that the scene eventually began to burn itself out.

They say you can’t get addicted to MDMA because there’s a law of diminishing returns: The more times you do it, the less intense it feels, until you don’t get any of the good parts and all you feel is cracked-out and broken. It’s said you can track the burnout of the 1990s rave scene through the happy house, trance, hardcore and industrial movements.

The music gets darker, faster and more twisted as the scene goes from fluffy and soft to hard-edged and ragged. Neon glow sticks give way to goth tattoos, and the politics of PLUR (Peace, Love, Unity, Respect) are replaced by a cynical and narcissistic “Who gives a shit?”

At the turn of the century, the MDMA scene burned out — first in London, then in Boston, New York and Miami.

It burned out hardest in San Francisco, where candy-colored rave kids rolled west with dreams of dot-com boom riches and nonstop Burning Man debauchery. Many problems began eating away at the scene. There were a bunch of big lab busts and increasing difficulty getting source materials to make the drug, and as a result good E was getting harder and harder to find. At the same time, new legal research chemicals and copycat pills were making the scene dangerous. Testing kits were devised and distributed to help users discern real E from the fakes, but the market was severely diluted, and so it began to fade. People stopped using the terms “E” or “X” or “XTC” and started using even stranger terms like “Scooby snacks,” “disco biscuits,” “roly-polies,” “party pills” or “beans,” which could literally be any psychoactive drug in a pill or gelcap. It was a very strange time of ambiguous, quasi-legal E-copycat rebranding. And no matter how good they might be at times, taking copycat pills is always a crapshoot.

Around this time in San Francisco, MDMA made its move into hip-hop under the name “thizz.” Rapper Mac Dre’s “Thizzle Dance” was an ode to the drug. It remains unknown how Mac Dre was introduced to MDMA, but it changed his life. After spending five years in jail for conspiracy to commit robbery, Dre reinvented himself in 1997, and by 1999 he was doing the Thizzle Dance with his own label, Thizz Entertainment, becoming the first official MDMA rapper and building the foundation for something called the “hyphy movement.” He even had an alter ego called Thizelle Washington and a fake religion called the Nation of Thizzlam, and was reportedly rolling on thizzle every day all the way to the bank. Other influential rappers were introduced to E around 2000. Eminem rapped about it, Ja Rule was into it — but thizz, though it was definitely MDMA, was no longer the love drug of the candy-colored raver kids. Instead, it was a party drug to get you good and fucked up.

Molly Goes Mainstream

In the world of hip-hop, rappers found that they weren’t getting enough party cred with weed shout-outs anymore; they needed something new to make them stand out. Ecstasy was the perfect drug to fit the bill. In hip-hop culture, MDMA is a drug that gets you wasted; it makes girls horny; it’s a party drug; it’s a date-rape drug. Enter the term “molly.” Molly is the all-time good-time girl. You never know what kind of molly you might get, but she always promises to make you feel good. She’s an upper. She makes feelings more intense. She will fuck you up. She’s a rush. These expectations are encoded in the hip-hop version of molly today, but where did it start?

Molly got her first hip-hop shout-out in Sam Adams’ “I Hate College” in 2010, a spoof of the party rap song “I Love College.” In 2011, molly got shout-outs from bigger names, including Snoop Dogg, Wiz Khalifa and a new breed of ecstasy rappers like Juicy J, Kid Ink and Mac Miller. In 2012, there were at least 18 shout-outs to molly in rap songs, and by March 2012 even Madonna was yelling from the stage at Miami’s Ultra Music Festival: “How many people in this crowd have seen Molly?”

By 2013, the molly scene had been infiltrated by bath salts and meth. In September of that year, two deaths at the Electric Zoo festival in New York were reported by CBS News’ website with the headline “NYC concert deaths put spot- light on new drug ‘molly.’” New drug? MDMA, by that point, was actually over 100 years old, but whatever — “molly” had become the new favorite name.

One of the Electric Zoo deaths was reportedly due to MDMA cut with the bath salt methylone. Drug cocktailing is nothing new: In the rave era, users mixed MDMA with hallucinogens like LSD (candy-flipping) or magic mushrooms (hippie-flipping) to give the trip legs. And then DXM and ketamine (Special K) made their way into pills — and then heroin, and then research chemicals like 2C-B and 5-MeO-DiPT. But it started with MDMA and then mutated to include these other copycat substances. This is a constant pattern.

Where Does Molly Come From?

“I first heard MDMA called ‘molly’ in the 1990s at a Grateful Dead show,” recalls psychedelic chemist Casey Hardison, who was arrested in the United Kingdom in 2003 for manufacturing LSD, DMT and MDMA. “Molly was always powdered MDMA, not the pills,” he adds. “Molly, molly, molly — everyone was rolling on molly.”

In Hardison’s experience, clandestine MDMA manufacture always begins with high-vacuum/low-temperature-distilled safrole oil, preferably from China. “You can get it from India — lots of places, probably,” Hardison says. “But Chinese manufacturers, at least some of them, will ship it out mislabeled,” since safrole is on the international watch list for drug-precursor chemicals. “Just tell them you have some custom problems, and they’ll label it as something else so you don’t hit the watch list.”

Purely distilled safrole oil makes the best MDMA. According to Hardison, the best underground chemists distill their safrole again after they get it from the supplier, “just to make sure you know what you’re working with.” He learned the technique from the legendary psychedelic chemist Alexander Shulgin, who mentioned it in his book PiHKAL. When I ask him why raw safrole is found in some blends of underground molly, Hardison is quick with the answer: “They ran out of tinfoil in the aluminum amalgam stage; the reaction didn’t complete. Sometimes people will say that the molly is ‘sassy’, like it has that sassafras smell, like that’s a good thing.”

As it turns out, it’s not a good thing.

Hardison is describing the waxy, brownish molly powder I had seen in the gelcaps on Mike’s desk. “People don’t use the right thickness of aluminum foil in the amalgam stage, or they run out,” he says. “That’s why you’ll see that brown molly out there. If you fully complete the reaction, there is no safrole left, so the molly will be odorless.”

In the past, the underground molly market was served by boutique chemists who took pride in their work. There was no MDMA cartel or kingpin, only a disparate network of grassroots chemists serving the dance-festival scene. Recently, shipments of hundreds of thousands of E tablets were intercepted in Perth, Australia. They came from the Netherlands by way of Italy, headed to feed Australia’s huge outdoor trance-festival scene.

All MDMA from Europe probably comes from the Netherlands or Belgium and heads south by way of Italy and Bulgaria. The MDMA market in North America is controlled mostly through Canada by the “triads,” Asian organized- crime groups originating in Hong Kong. Originally, the triad groups set up shop in remote labs in the Canadian wilderness, but they have recently moved their organization to hundreds of small cook houses scattered across residential areas from Vancouver to Montreal. These cook houses churn out meth as a primary product and MDMA as a secondary product at a ratio of around 10 to 1. The synthesis for both molecules is very similar. The only difference is that MDMA needs safrole or isosafrole as a precursor, or the harder-to-come-by piperonial or MDP-2-P, all of which are closely watched by drug-enforcement agencies. Meth is a simpler molecule and can be made with less expensive precursors that are also easier to come by.

Since 2008, there has been a world- wide shortage of safrole oil. Don’t blame drug enforcement, however — blame the weather. As a result, the quantity and quality of MDMA has decreased worldwide. The triads began cutting their MDMA with meth around 2009, but lately Canadian police have been finding labs stocked with “meth tablets” that looked like E pills but contain no MDMA whatsoever. This may be due to the safrole shortage, but as Hardison points out, “If the triads wanted to ship a 50-gallon drum of safrole to Vancouver overnight, it would happen. They’re the fucking triads.”

The real problem is that a 50-gallon drum is now twice as expensive to import on the lowdown, completely erasing the profit margin on E tablets. “The reason they press meth pills [and sell them as MDMA] is all branding,” Hardison says. “They have the meth, they have access to the MDMA market, so they press up a bunch of meth pills and resell it to clue- less club kids at 10 times the price.”

What’s in Fake Molly?

The ambiguity of the term “molly” is ingenious. People looking for molly aren’t saying, “I want MDMA”; they’re saying, “I want to party.” These are two very differ- ent expectations. According to, a website that tests street MDMA for purity, only 25 percent of capsules and powders sent in as “molly” are pure MDMA. Another 25 percent contain MDMA and something else, such as caffeine, procaine or methamphetamine. And the other 50 percent are a combination of designer cathinones (bath salts like methylone), MDA, caffeine, research chemicals like 2C-B, piperazines, dissociatives, and other stimulants like cocaine and meth. Molly powder gelcaps are also unidentifiable — you can tell the difference between a blue-diamond and a red-heart E pill, but powder gelcaps all look the same. The underground pill- testing site won’t even post test results for gelcaps, stating: “It takes a lot of effort to make a copy of a successful pill logo. It takes exactly NO effort to get capsules of the same color as some with a good reputation, and use that to pass off crap.”

Is Molly Safe?

People in law enforcement are fond of reminding people that the “MA” in MDMA stands for “methamphetamine,” and they like to compare it to meth. But this comparison is disingenuous — just ask any emergency-room physician. People show up at emergency rooms freaking out on meth all the time; people who take MDMA rarely do. Meth addicts go to the doctor with fake ailments seeking prescription drugs to feed their addiction; MDMA users never do this, ever. Meth users often escalate their usage from snorting to freebasing to injecting; this doesn’t work with MDMA (freebased or injected MDMA doesn’t deliver the same rush and is mostly a waste of product). Meth has minimal medicinal value, while MDMA is used in psychotherapy clinical trials to treat anxiety and stress disorders. And finally, although meth might make you horny, it has never been called the “love drug.” Though the molecules are similar, MDMA is not meth — it’s much safer, more therapeutic and far less addictive.

That being said, although molly is gen-tle, she is not always your friend. Studies (often disputed) have shown that there can be long-term emotional or memory effects from heavy MDMA use. Some people overdose on MDMA, or overheat while dancing, or overhydrate, and some wind up in emergency rooms. Many overdoses happen when MDMA is mixed with other drugs, or when a drug is sold as molly but is actually something like TFMPP, a piperazine sold as “legal X” that feels like MDMA at very low doses but quickly leads to intense nausea and dizziness if you pop one too many beans looking for that rush.

But even though the few deaths a year attributed to MDMA are widely reported, imagine all the raves and music festivals happening out there every weekend. Imagine all the hundreds of thousands of pills and capsules being sold and swallowed. You’d think kids would be dropping like flies, but it turns out that if an MDMA scene is strong, it will protect itself and become self-correcting. You can see this happening at raves and festivals.

Educational materials are passed around; there are information booths and testing kits; and websites like post pictures of which pills are good and which are dangerous. Molly is unique in this way, as the only drug that has such a strong community attempting to keep out the infiltrators.

Turn On, Tune In, Wise Up

At an after-hours warehouse party, I run into Angie, an old friend who just tried molly for the first time. Her eyes are sparkling, her face is flushed — she is glowing. She keeps rubbing her sweater and saying, “I can’t stop it, it’s sooo soft.” I can tell she is on the real deal. Trance music is thumping and she is chatting with her friends, the kind of close and intimate chat that happens spontaneously on E.
“This is so amazing!” Angie says.

“This drug can literally cure anything. They should give it to all the politicians and greedy Wall Street bankers to cure them of being such assholes.” Her friends giggle and agree. I don’t have the heart to tell them that a lot of those politicians and bankers have already tried molly and loved it, but nothing changed — they’re still assholes. Bliss, no matter how perfect, isn’t a cure-all, and it never lasts.

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