The rise of MDMA and electronic dance music at Penn
Dude!” one boy grabbed his friend’s hand. “I’m rolling face right now!” His friend nodded and swayed into him, putting an arm around the first boy’s shoulder. “Me too, man.”
The two were shirtless and sweaty, covered in glitter and donning glow stick necklaces. Their attention turned to the stage where Pretty Lights, the aptly named electronic–music act, ended the packed Popped! Festival with explosive visualizations and ground–shaking electro–beats. 15 or so Penn students surrounded the boys.
They all shook their bodies in waves with wide eyes. They were mesmerized by the lights, sounds and flying limbs. They had all eaten Molly — the street name for pure MDMA. They were rolling.
It’s almost impossible to pinpoint Molly’s mainstream entrance at Penn. It could have been last Spring Fling’s Delancey block party where half of the attendees featured bright paints and dilated pupils. Or this summer, when Swedish DJ Avicii trotted up and down the east coast, stopping in Philly and playing sold out shows where Penn students danced on the shoulders of one another. Or this semester’s paint party, DayGlow, where two campus dealers sold dirty Molly to more than a dozen students. Perhaps Molly’s presence was solidified three weeks ago at the Popped! where peers rolled next to one another sandwiched in the Liacouras Center.
Molly — the ‘pure’ form of ecstasy — has invaded Penn’s mainstream party culture. Those that roll on Molly can eat, snort or parachute (fold the powder into a tissue and swallow) the drug. At an average street price of $15 a hit — 0.1 of a gram — Molly is a synthesized methamphetamine that floods users’ brains with excess serotonin, the neurotransmitter associated with happiness.
Dr. Neta Zach, a professor who teaches the course entitled ‘Drugs, Brain and Mind’ explains Molly’s effects: “You would find things hilarious and you would also have an inflated self–esteem. You see sensory changes in the environment and you feel a sense of well–being, an interest in the environment, a sense that the world is good.”
Dr. Zach comments that MDMA can be therapeutic, “It is reexamined for cases of posttraumatic stress disorder to alleviate some of the anxiety. It helps you approach memories in a context of well–being and care.”
It’s also a party drug.
According to a 2010 study by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, approximately 12.4 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 have taken MDMA at least once.
With minimal immediate dangers — among them dehydration, dry mouth and jaw clenching — those on Molly can experience three to four hours of synthetic and uninterrupted bliss.
Nancy*, a junior from the Northeast who can’t count how many times she’s rolled, first tried Molly the summer after her freshman year. She remembers her first experience at Camp Bisco, an upstate New York music festival started by trance fusion band, the Disco Biscuits. “I didn’t even know I had those dance moves! I was just dancing my heart out, loving the music; it couldn’t have been better.” Since then, she’s noticed an increase in Molly’s presence on campus. “The first time I did it at Penn was for a frat downtown last year — Darude was playing. I saw all these kids chewing on straws,” a common alleviation for Molly’s jaw clenching side effect.
The rise in popularity of dubstep, electronic and house music is slowly overtaking that of traditional rock music. Tiesto, a DJ that costs more to see than Bob Dylan, found his face on a recent issue of the L.A. Times. Deadmau5, a DJ who performs while wearing a gigantic mouse head, played a jam–packed finale at this year’s Lollapalooza. Coldplay closed the same stage two nights before to a tame crowd of fans. Even at Popped!, Pretty Lights ended the Saturday night set with kids clawing to get on stage. The night before, the Shins closed the night softly to a half– full stadium. These events create an opportunity for Molly users to roll in an environment where flashing lights and infectious dance beats propel drug use. MDMA becomes not just socially acceptable but almost a prerequisite.
Evan*, a freshman from the south, first tried Molly with friends from high school when Skrillex — an electronic musician who appeared on the October cover of Spin’s rave generation issue — came to town.
Earlier this month, Evan had tickets for the September 23 Deadmau5 concert. He bought Molly through a delivery service that an RA in the Quad referred him to. He spent $210 on 1.75 grams of Molly for himself and a few freshman friends.
But it’s not always about the music.
For Sophia*, an engineering junior who says she’s rolled at least ten times, Molly is about introspection. “I don’t think I’ve rolled at as many concerts as most people.” For her, the emotional realizations are more important than the music–enhancing effects. “I think people are looking for something slightly different when they’re on Molly. It’s a chiller feeling. It’s more of the intimacy, more of the introspective, making connections with other people. You can sit down in a chair on Molly and talk to someone and be extremely happy.”
She describes her best roll with big eyes and fast talk. “We were driving a boat at one of my friend’s lake houses. You could see the sun coming up and the light was coming through the trees. It was flashing like a natural strobe light effect. You’re getting spray in your face. It’s all the stuff you get at raves, but in nature.”
When asked if Nancy’s friends at Penn have taken Molly, she nods heartily. “Everyone. I mean tons. It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen. It’s the same at other schools too.” While it’s impossible to claim that “everyone” at Penn is doing Molly, its presence is noticeable.
Travis*, a college junior who sells Molly intermittently, claims, “It’s like saying everyone smokes pot. It seems like they do but obviously not everyone does.” Travis sold about 80 hits of Molly (eight grams) at last year’s Spring Fling, earning him approximately $1,500 in profits. He ingested about 10 hits, or one gram, of Molly that weekend. Travis, like many campus drug dealers, is in a fraternity. Most of his customers were referrals from his frat brothers.
Greek life — roughly 30 percent of Penn’s undergraduate student body — seems to be a driving force behind upped Molly usage. Three fraternities whose brothers lived in houses on Delancey Street threw last Fling’s block party. In addition to standard frat party keg stands, house doors were open to students who snorted Molly off glass tables. Dozens of girls sported sorority–lettered neon jerseys and rolled to the beats of Penn band, Slow Dance Chubby — comprised of members of five different fraternities.
Patrick*, a junior from California who is unaffiliated with the Greek system, claims, “Electronic music helped bring acceptance to mainstream MDMA use. The Greek scene appears extremely mainstream to me. When you start doing things like ecstasy and that’s mainstream of course people are going to do it… because it’s great”
Patrick remembers that he used to take three or four ecstasy pills a night when going to raves in high school. Now, a few years older, he does Molly two or three times a year and appreciates the creed of Ann and Sasha Shulgin, a married couple credited with the popularization of MDMA in the 1970s. After a deep drag on a marijuana vaporizer Patrick says, “It should be a really special experience and a time to reevaluate and remember what’s important in your life and remember all the love and stuff.”
Molly’s ‘purity’ may attract those unlikely to try hard drugs with more dangerous reputations like cocaine or heroin. Evan reiterates, “People who’ve never smoked before — hardly drank — just did Molly because they were like, ‘There’s nothing really wrong with it because it’s not cut with heroin or anything.’ It lets people feel better about it.”
But Molly trips aren’t always cuddle puddles and rainbow stickers.
Because of its powder form, buyers may not know that seemingly ‘pure’ MDMA could be cut with anything. Nancy recounts two of her female friends who bought what they thought was ecstasy from a sophomore fraternity dealer for this fall’s DayGlow. “He told them it was ecstasy but it was powder in a capsule. He kept confusing it and then said that it was cut with speed.” Both girls vomited after eating the powder.
There was no way to hold him accountable. He sold another sophomore boy two hits of Molly for last month’s Deadmau5 concert. The buyer stumbled around the venue for three hours unable to distinguish between his friends and strangers.” Not exactly the trip he signed up for.
Though bad trips on actual MDMA are rare, Dr. Zach explains that the immediate after effects can be traumatizing for users. “You’ll have several hours of an episode where you feel depressed,” a period that most users call the ‘comedown.’ She continues, “There’s a sense of lack of love, lack of optimism, lack of well–being.”
And the long–term effects aren’t well understood. Dr. Zach claims, “Even with one use you can see a disturbance in memory — mostly verbal and declarative memories.” The rest is unknown.
Sophia cares about the risks. She researches Molly in her spare time and frequently checks Erowid.com, a user–generated drug information hub. She comments on Molly’s healing power, “I recently read it can cure cancer. But the amount it would take could kill you.” According to Erowid.com, it is possible to overdose on MDMA, especially if mixed with MAOIs — a type of prescribed antidepressant.
Sophia realizes her love affair with Molly can’t last forever. She says she ate 0.5 grams — a hefty dose for a five foot four girl who probably weighs 110 pounds soaking wet — at Avicii’s Philadelphia show this summer. “It totally scared me and it wasn’t even the best roll I’ve had.”
Penn students filed like transfixed cattle back to campus. “What next?” cried a senior boy covered in pink glitter whose eyes bulged like golf balls.
The 30 or so students parted ways at 40th and Walnut — some to continue dancing at a fraternity graffiti party, some to admire laser lights at an off–campus house and some to smoke weed to offset the after–effects.
They know they’ll have to come down eventually, but for now they roll on.
*All names presented in this article have been changed to protect the anonymity of the student.