Reducing the Harm of 'Molly'
The recent hospitalization of eleven people at Wesleyan University after they partook of a "bad batch" of MDMA once again highlights the dangers of the U.S.'s approach to drug use. And as a new season of electronic-dance festivals ramps up -- SXSW and Ultra Music Festival are just weeks away -- it's critical that officials shy away from their typical ploys of scare tactics and displaced blame.
Over the last decade, an allegedly purer form of the synthetic psychoactive drug MDMA has been branded "Molly." While the old MDMA, known as "ecstasy," peaked in popularity during the 1990s among white adolescents at dance clubs, Molly has evolved to encompass a much more diversified fanbase. Now it's common to turn on the radio and hear the likes of Miley Cyrus and Rihanna drop a line touting the drug's intense euphoric effects.
However, serious incidents at music festivals have led officials to publicly denigrate the drug, with some going so far as to cancel events out of fear. But MDMA is not as harmful as many believe, and it's the disturbing lack of awareness about the drug that precipitates these incidents.
Overdose-related deaths attributed to MDMA are actually quite rare. In a comprehensive review of the harm 20 different drugs cause to the user and others, the medical journal The Lancet ranked MDMA as one of the least dangerous, far below the ranks of both alcohol and tobacco.
That is not to say the drug is without harm, but the dearth of knowledge about MDMA's effects is a major contributor to the harm that occurs. MDMA increases heart rate and blood pressure and can interfere with the body's regulation of temperature, making hyperthermia (elevated temperature) an all-too-common side effect. While some who take MDMA drink excess amounts of water in an attempt to defeat hyperthermia, this can lead to water intoxication, an illness that can be fatal. Sadly, few are aware of how to properly moderate water intake while under the influence.
A number of other issues arise when MDMA is taken in conjunction with other, more common drugs. When MDMA is combined with alcohol, dehydration can occur more rapidly, and the body may also block signals of alcohol intoxication, leading to alcohol poisoning. Meanwhile, using MDMA in conjunction with cocaine can seriously accelerate heart rate, and drinking a simple cup of caffeinated coffee has the potential to cause adverse effects.
But even when MDMA users are knowledgeable about the drug's effects and interactions, they still face unknown danger; before sale, the drug is often mixed with other substances, such as alprazolam (Xanax), mephedrone, methamphetamine, and PMA.
Officials are often quick to blame dangerous incidents on the drugs themselves, but in doing so, they overlook an important part of the equation. By offering only futile calls for abstinence and one-sided information copied and pasted from the Drug Enforcement Administration, they put people at risk by effectively prohibiting potentially life-saving help.
Fortunately, several harm-reduction organizations are working to make recreational drug users safer. One such organization is DanceSafe, which strives to offer drug users "a non-judgmental perspective" focused on their health and safety. DanceSafe often sets up booths at music festivals and raves in order to provide partygoers with unbiased literature and a safe place to converse about drug use. Sometimes the nonprofit even sets up onsite pill testing so that recreational drug users can know exactly what drug they are taking.
Unfortunately, event organizers often reject their help. The Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act of 2003 makes event organizers and promoters liable for drug overdoses when they have knowledge that drugs are being used at their events. They can face arrest and a fine up to $250,000. As a result, guerrilla harm-reduction groups, like the Bunk Police, have slowly begun to defy event organizers and law enforcement by surreptitiously handing out testing kits -- which are classified as illegal drug paraphernalia in many states -- at a small number of events.
As an alternative to on-site help at raves and parties, DanceSafe's website is replete with easily accessible information on how MDMA affects the brain and body, and its drug-adulteration testing kits are available at a very economical price. On a larger scale, sites like EcstasyData allow drug users to anonymously mail in samples for analysis. Once a tablet, capsule, or powder is submitted and tested, the website posts a picture of it along with detailed information about its street name, size dimensions, location of origin, and the adulterants that were found.
Some universities, such as Brown and the Univerity of Pennsylvania, realize that college students are a large part of the MDMA-using demographic, and so they connect their students to harm-reduction resources. But sadly, most universities -- including Wesleyan up until last week -- do not.
Harm-reduction strategies are the best way to combat the current dangers of drug culture, and it is paramount that universities, law enforcement, and the public at large work to cultivate a wider acceptance and awareness of such services. People will continue to use drugs, and their safety will be in danger as long as officials continue to displace blame and support prohibitive approaches to the problem.
Andrew Gargano is an editorial assistant at Young Voices, a policy project of the international nonprofit Students For Liberty.