washingtonpost.com: Real-time testing of drugs at music festivals shows ‘Molly’ often isn’t ‘Molly’


By Ariana Eunjung Cha

Scientists, public health experts and volunteers working with them have started to show up at music festivals, concerts, raves and other public gatherings where illicit drugs are frequently used. Equipped with special chemical testing kits, they help attendees test pills and powder for purity in real time so that people can make better-informed decisions about whether to take them.

The practice — more common in Europe than in the United States — is controversial, and the debate has been similar to the early days of needle-exchange programs in the 1980s. Proponents argue harm reduction. They say people are more likely to reject taking drugs to get high if the substances do not contain what they think they do, which reduces the risk of overdose and other harmful effects. Critics say such programs implicitly encourage the use of illegal drugs.

There hasn't been a lot of hard data about pill testing until this month, when a study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology found some surprising things about one of the most popular street drugs being used today.

Called Molly, the drug is a form of ecstasy or MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxyamphetamine) and sought after for its ability to create euphoria and heightened sensations in users. It typically sells for $10 to $20 a dose. As of 2014, a government survey estimated, 7 percent of the U.S. population had tried ecstasy at least once. Molly's appeal is that it's supposed to be purer and safer.

So why then has there been an increase in hospital emergency room visits and deaths related to the drugs since Molly's introduction in the 2000s?

Researchers looked at data collected by volunteers for the nonprofit organization DanceSafe, who tested samples of pills or powder at gatherings throughout the United States between July 2010 and July 2015. The testers would scrape a small amount of a pill or use part of the inside of a capsule.

The first thing the volunteers found was that MDMA was present in only 60 percent of the 529 ostensible Molly samples collected. The others contained a mix of all sorts of other ingredients. Most of the chemicals couldn't be identified through the tests at the sites. But 13 samples contained methamphetamine, a strong nervous system drug. And three samples even had a very potent form of amphetamine known as PMA, which is more likely than many other drugs to kill with one dose.

The researchers concluded that Molly is no safer than ecstasy.

The study also contained some important findings from a public policy perspective. After attendees at these events got the test results for their pills or powder, they were asked whether they still intended to ingest them. With individuals whose drugs did contain MDMA, 46 percent said they would go ahead and use them. That compared with 26 percent of people who said they still intended to take their drugs although they did not contain MDMA.