“I don’t pop Molly; I rock Tom Ford,” boasts Jay Z on a track off his latest oeuvre, Magna Carta... Holy Grail. And while Hova might abstain, Molly is undoubtedly on the tongues of many, courtesy of a recent haphazard, high-profile media blitz both glorifying and vilifying the drug’s ascent. In 2012, Madonna feuded with Deadmau5 after he criticized her for asking the crowd at Ultra Music Festival if they’d seen Molly. And while Electronic Dance Music (EDM) is assuredly Molly’s main squeeze, she makes her presence known throughout the lyrics of hip-hop, as well: 2 Chainz, Trinidad James, Lil’ Wayne, Kanye, Nicki Minaj, Rick, and RiRi.
But it was the recent controversy over a Miley Cyrus lyric in her new song "We Can't Stop" that set Molly mania into hyperdrive. Early on, Cyrus’s record label was vehement in spelling out the lyrics as "dancing with Miley," until Miley herself, testing the limits of candidness, opened up to The Daily Mail revealing: "It depends who's doing what. If you're aged ten it's 'Miley', if you know what I'm talking about, then you know.” Molly, for those of us age 10 and over, comes in many forms and goes by many names — though, talk to friends and fans of the popular drug and you’ll quickly learn that those who follow are often devout. But there’s more to ‘her’ story.
It all starts with MDMA: It’s cheap and increasingly easy to find. Studies have shown varied results in tests for addiction and tolerance in humans, but so far no conclusive evidence suggests that it has the same potential for addiction as other drugs. A recent New York Times article, “Molly: Pure, but Not So Simple,” accredited the rise to human desire for interaction on a deeper level. Brad Burge, Director of Communications and Marketing for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, agrees. As he puts it, “We’re in a culture where we’re feeling so isolated from each other, everything is so mediated and moderated through the Internet, that it depersonalizes it. We’re in a country that’s in a steep economic decline. This can cause some cultural trauma. People are looking for ways to connect. In certain doses, in certain places, certain drugs can produce this feeling of intimacy.”
MDMA was perhaps most viscerally described by Jessica Winter in a report she did for Oprah.com in 2011: “Imagine the instant right before orgasm or before a roller coaster tips over its peak height, then stretch that instant to the length of a pop song — or maybe two songs, or three. Imagine every pore and molecule in your body yawning open, vibrating with the effort, an exhilarating stretch that reaches almost far enough to touch pain.” But the seminal work that comes to mind is political satirist P.J. O’Rourke's 1985 Rolling Stone article "Tune In, Turn On, Go to the Office Late On Monday." He described it as “very sophisticated, extremely well-buffered speed," and went on to defend the gentleness of what he’d refer to as a “lap-dog drug,” explaining “If Delta Force banged on your door you’d be able to calmly explain that the PLO terrorists live upstairs in 5B, not at your house. Though you might also thank the commanding officer for being who he is and tell him his uniform is cute.” Paige, a 25-year-old Manhattan law clerk, agreed with O’Rourke’s evaluation, less artfully describing it as “the best fucking thing ever fucking invented.”
From psychotherapy to club therapy, MDMA has a long and complex history in pop culture.
MDMA was first “invented” in 1912 in Germany, when it was successfully synthesized and patented by The Merck Group. The primary use for the substance — at that time still legal — was therapeutic, treating both post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and aiding couples in working through marital issues. In 1976, psychopharmacologist Alexander Shulgin was introduced to MDMA by a graduate student at San Francisco State University. Shulgin went on to develop a new synthesis method, and tested it out on himself and a select group of psychotherapist friends.
By 1977, both a powder and pill form of MDMA quietly emerged as a recreational street drug, quickly becoming proscribed in the U.K. within months. In 1982, The Haçienda, a former warehouse-turned-nightclub, opened its doors in Manchester, England, and from there emerged the "Madchester" scene and a pioneering Ibiza party, hosted by DJ’s Mike Pickering and Jon DaSilva known as “Hot.” The club’s following grew feverishly and with it, a reputation for hard party drugs. In the 2002 film 24 Hour Party People, real-life Mr. Manchester Tony Wilson (played by Steve Coogan) comments: “This is it. The birth of rave culture. The beatification of the beat. The dance age. This is the moment when even the white man starts dancing. Welcome to Madchester.”
Then, in 1984, former seminary student and self-proclaimed “Ecstasy missionary,” Michael Clegg returned to Dallas from a religious experience in California with a group of therapists. He brought MDMA with him, hooked up with some chemists, and started his own manufacturing operation. He sold it at clubs and through a 1-800 number (even offering free-shipping). One particularly popular club, just off the Woodall Rodgers Freeway, was the Starck Club, frequented by celebrities like Grace Jones and Stevie Nicks. “You had sexual freedom, which had come out of the ’70s, and the drug culture was still going on,” says filmmaker Michael Cain. Cain is currently in post-production for a new documentary, The Starck Project, about the club — which is regarded by many as the birthplace of rave culture in America. “It was just what you did...almost like a pyramid scheme. People would get invited to parties and be asked, ‘Would you like to buy it? Would you like to sell it to your friends?’ You could make money doing this.”
Before long, rave culture emerged throughout the world, fueled by DJs, LSD, and a psychoactive that became known on the streets by many names: Molly, Ecstasy, Adam, Disco Biscuits, Malcolm X, Scooby Snacks, and Skittles. “Nobody called the drug MDMA. Everyone said ‘x-tasy’ or ‘X,’” says Michael T, a DJ, promoter, and fixture at popular Manhattan club The Limelight throughout the ‘80s. Up until that point, MDMA bore many nicknames, but it was all the same substance — and it was loved.
Then, in 1985, the government began a crackdown on MDMA, and it officially became a Schedule I controlled substance. As supply dwindled, demand surged, and thus, an underground economic incentive was created to form cheaper manufacturing methods. Ecstasy took on a new meaning. A new pressed-pill form of MDMA was born. It was cut with other, cheaper substances, like caffeine, cocaine, ketamine, or fertilizer.
By the early ‘90s, with rave culture in full trance, popular scare tactics emerged from many drug researchers insinuating that Ecstasy would put permanent holes in the user’s brain, or even connecting it to early-onset Parkinson’s (this controversial statement was retracted soon after). In 2000, Time magazine jumped on the bandwagon, scaring the bejesus out of parents around the country with its cover story “What Ecstasy Does To Your Brain.” In it, 18-year-old “Karen” revealed that "the cliques are pretty big in [her] school, and every clique does it." And thus the warning bell was sounded. But that hasn't stopped the scene from going and growing strong.
Today, Molly is enjoying a notable resurgence, thanks to that ubiquitous modern corporate buzzword: rebranding.
Let’s pause and demystify: Molly, the powder or crystalline form of MDMA is not (necessarily) pure. Most Molly, like Ecstasy, is more likely than not cut with something else. So, why the confusion? “Molly hasn’t been exhausted in the headlines yet, but Ecstasy kind of has,” says Burge. “People are asking ‘What is this crazy new drug Molly?’ when it’s really just the same thing with a new brand name.” Molly is, in essence, a mass PR stunt by the underground to rebrand Ecstasy as “pure” or — the buzziest buzzword of them all — "organic." And while that might have been the case at one time, distributors quickly became incentivized to “water it down” because, according to one dealer (asked to be given the moniker Sneeze), “Who’s going to know the difference?”
Electronic Dance Music (EDM) had a meteoric rise in the early aughts via powerhouse DJs like Daft Punk, Paul Oakenfold, Tiesto, and David Guetta. “A lot of artists out now who are seeing incredible success have figured out a foolproof formula to reel in more mainstream listeners,” says Jenny Gurvich, Managing Editor of TheBeatMill. “Ten years ago no DJ I ever listened to would ever be heard on something like Z100, but now you hear the likes of Zedd and Krewella on a radio station nearly everyone listens to.” Attendance at Miami’s Ultra Music Festival quintupled over the last eight years rising from 45,000 attendees in 2005 to 330,000 at this year’s festival. And, as it goes, where there’s EDM, there’s MDMA. Abraham, a 23-year-old research developer, attended Electric Zoo in 2012 where he says “about 97% of people seem to be on [Molly] and the other 3% are going around asking people where they can get some.”
But of course, like any drug, there can be fatal consequences. Such was the case at Paradiso Dance Music Festival, held just weeks ago in Seattle, headlined by Tiesto and Kaskade. According to Quincy Valley Medical centre, the emergency room saw 123 patients over the weekend — including 72 from the concert — who were treated and released, with 40 to 45 of the issues related to drug use, and one resulting in death. Somewhere beyond the euphoria lies side effects that can include teeth grinding, jaw clenching, perspiration, blurred vision, urinary retention, hyperthermia, and of course, the potential for overdose. But the primary worry remains the lack of regulation surrounding what MDMA is combined with. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, "Other potentially harmful drugs — including synthetic cathinones, the psychoactive ingredients in “bath salts” — can be neurotoxic or pose other unpredictable health risks." Certain organizations like DanceSafe, a non-profit "harm reduction organization," offer screening test kits to prevent the consumption of more harmful substances, but these are never foolproof.
So, what’s next for MDMA? What started out as a therapeutic drug and morphed into an illegal, recreational substance is now being reconsidered for psychiatric use in certain medical circles.
In 2010, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies treated 20 female survivors of sexual assault battling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They administered a low dosage of MDMA in conjunction with psychotherapy over the course of two months. The results were staggering, with over 83 percent of the subjects no longer qualifying for a PTSD diagnosis by the study’s conclusion. Phase two trials are underway (small, exploratory trials of 12 to 24 subjects around the world). Phase three will roll out over the next three years,” says Burge, “and if all goes well, MDMA could be a legalized means of psychotherapy within 12 to 15 years.” If given FDA approval, MDMA-assisted psychotherapy would be legally administered at clinics under the supervision of a doctor.
But that's probably a long ways away. For now, MDMA remains a contentious subject largely because of increased accessibility. Where LSD developed an increased reputation as a commitment drug, lasting six to eight hours, MDMA (which lasts an average of three to four hours) saw its reputation soften through increased exposure, permeating culture via public curiosity. And even if it does have some therapeutic benefits, the truth is that most users today are experiencing Molly sans prescription, under the not-so-watchful supervision of fellow party-goers.
O'Rourke also wrote that every generation will find the drug that suits it best. A substance that benefits simultaneously from the pure, natural, even medically beneficial reputation of marijuana and the high-energy context of EDM seems made for an era that feels torn between a dystopian future and an idealized past. And, if Girls is any indication of our current glorification of privileged party culture, Molly's trendy bliss seems like an instant cure for the Hannah Horvaths of the world. Above all, this decade-spanning zeitgeist around Ecstasy, and its many forms, is proof of one thing: its grunge-y glamour isn't going anywhere, anytime soon.