“It felt so good. I just kept rolling my head around and around and around.”
“I opened my eyes, and I felt like a newly empowered individual.”
“Music came on, and my arms started moving and flailing. I was watching my arms move.”
“The worst thing in the world could have happened, and I would have had absolutely zero clue that it was bad until the next morning.”
This is how a collection of Georgetown students described their highs on MDMA.
“Intense euphoria, feelings of connectedness and empathy and [increased] energy,” on the other hand, is how Carissa Winland, a neuroscience Ph.D. candidate at Georgetown who teaches the course “Drugs, the Brain and Behavior” characterized the effects of the drug, which increases levels of the happiness-inducing neurotransmitter serotonin in the spaces between brain cells in the same way as prescription antidepressants like Prozac, often causing mild hallucinations. Like cocaine,MDMA affects concentrations of dopamine, the neurotransmitter involved in movement and sense of reward.
MDMA, short for 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine, first gained notoriety in the 1970s when psychologists administered it to patients to reduce anxiety and inhibition. It was outlawed in the United States in 1985, but by the late 1990s, it had become popular on the rave scene in its street-pill form, ecstasy. Following a brief decline, it made a comeback in the late 2000s in its powdery form — known colloquially as Molly.
But Winland and Amanda DiBattista, who also teaches “Drugs, the Brain and Behavior,” are quick to point out MDMA’s negative side effects, including difficulty concentrating, an urge to grind your teeth, changes in sleeping patterns, hyperthermia and overdose in the short term. A prolonged period of depression, known as “Suicide Tuesday,” can last up to a week after use of the drug. Winland adds that there is strong evidence of long-lasting neurological damage from MDMA: Several studies show that adults who took Molly in their teens or early 20s on a recreational basis (i.e., a few times a month and without being addicted) had damaged serotonin systems into their 30s, despite having abstained from the drug for months or years. DiBattista rattles off studies in which the drug has been linked to memory problems and neurotoxicity, or death of brain cells.
Despite these risks, recreational use of the drug has skyrocketed in the United States in recent years. In a June 23 article, The New York Times reported that MDMA-related visits to U.S. emergency rooms have doubled since 2004; United States Customs and Border Protection reports 2,670 confiscations of MDMA in 2012, a dramatic jump from 186 in 2008.
Academics speculate that the rise in the drug’s use has been linked to the popularization of electronic dance music, or EDM, in recent years. What was once a boutique movement confined to underground raves has gone mainstream.
For all its colorful glory, the drug has come under media — and user — scrutiny in recent months, due to a string of overdose-related deaths at EDM concerts. Electric Zoo, an annual New York City music event that attracts over 100,000, was cut short this September following the deaths of Olivia Rotondo, 20, and Jeffrey Russ, 23, from MDMA overdoses and related hyperthermia on the festival’s second day. Closer to campus, 19-year-old Shelley Goldsmith, a student at the University of Virginia, died Aug. 31 at D.C.’s Echo Stage from an MDMA overdose.
The recent deaths have revealed another major risk related to the drug: Users, especially recreational ones, rarely know the actual contents of the pills or powder they ingest. Molly, despite its street reputation for being purer than ecstasy, can be laced with a wide spectrum of contaminants. Winland mentions MDDM, a byproduct that forms during the manufacture of MDMA, as a culprit, adding that postmortem reports have found that several deaths from MDMA show high levels of impurities in the death-inducing drug.
Andrew (SFS ’16), a self-described “lover of rave culture,” never gave a second thought to popping his first ecstasy pill freshman year, or several more thereafter. But for Andrew, the string of incidents this summer served as a wake-up call. He was present at Echo Stage when Goldsmith was carried away on a stretcher, and witnessed a friend and fellow Georgetown student grow violently ill from using the drug that same night.
“I basically took things at face value until I saw what was happening, and sometimes it takes tragedy to knock you to your senses,” he said.
Suspecting his friend had been the victim of an impure batch of MDMA, Andrew invested in a device called the Marquis Reagent Testing Kit. Sold online by DanceSafe, a nonprofit that seeks to bring an educational approach to hard drug use, the kit, worth $20, arrived at Andrew’s doorstep within two days. By the end of September, Andrew had tested seven samples of MDMA from various dealers — including on one occasion in the back of a dealer’s car — and was taken aback by the results.
“Of the seven batches I tested, five had zero traces of MDMA at all and were a completely different chemical, one had very trace amounts of MDMA — about 20 percent — and one of them was pureMDMA. So, like, do the math there,” he said.
Andrew claims that the impure samples mostly turned up high concentrations of methylone, an antidepressant developed in 1996 and a common “replacement” for Molly said to be behind the deaths at Electric Zoo.
“People aren’t getting what they’re expecting to, and what they are getting can often be very dangerous and unpleasant,” Andrew said. “The fact is, because it’s a different drug, you don’t know what dose you should be taking. People who think that they’re veterans [of MDMA use] aren’t taking the right amount. Basically they’re dealing with a completely different animal, and that’s dangerous.”
Like many of his peers, Andrew obtains most of his MDMA from small-scale dealers on campus, and has no way of tracing the many channels through which the drug passes before he consumes it.
“The networks are so huge and complicated. No one really knows where exactly the drug is coming from,” he said. “People think, ‘Oh, it’s just in my hands,’ and they don’t really think about the route it takes to get there. Because there is no quality control because it’s illegal, consumers need to do their own quality control.”
But Nathaniel (COL ’14), an infrequent Molly user, objects to the use of test kits because he fears it could create a false sense of security.
“It creates this sense of ‘Oh, I tested it, great.’ One hundred percent cocaine isn’t good for you, and neither is 100 percent MDMA. I’m opposed to what 100 percent represents. That’s just an excuse to do more and more powerful Molly and assume you’re reducing risk. I’m pretty sure it still burns holes in your brain even if it’s pure,” he said.
According to Patrick Kilcarr, director of the Center for Personal Development at Georgetown, an added danger linked to Molly is its reputation as the drug of choice for those on the college track.
“Molly is becoming more and more of a drug that you know educated people are taking, but what they’re not educated about is what exactly is in the pill,” he said.
Georgetown’s Director of Health Education Services Carol Day says recreational MDMA users at Georgetown like Andrew are rare. Day has never personally met with a student who came to speak about issues related to the drug, though she has seen several cases of alcohol abuse, and speculates that student perceptions about their peers’ use of hard drugs in general is inflated.
“I haven’t seen it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. But oftentimes there’s a perception among students in our community … that other people are using [hard drugs] way more than they actually are,” she said.
Indeed, a 2012 survey on college drug use sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health reported that only 5.8 percent of full-time college students had takenMDMA in the past year and 1.4 percent in the last 30 days.
At Georgetown, students who avoid the drug said they regard it as unnecessary and dangerous.
“I enjoy being in complete control of my actions for the night, and so … I’m just not very interested in it,” Kenyon Smutherman (SFS ’17) said, adding that he does not know of anyone at Georgetown who has used the drug.
Rob (SFS ’14), who has experimented with alcohol and marijuana, said his lack of exposure to the drug stems from its limited popularity in his social circles.
“I’ve just honestly never considered it. I suppose it has to do with my social circles, an intense workload while at school, living with the parents while at home,” he said. “If someone I trusted offered it to me at a party, I might be compelled to try it, but even in that case it would be due to a social experience more than anything else.”
Maria (COL ’14), who has used MDMA in college only once, agreed that Molly culture is largely hidden at Georgetown.
“If you seek it out, you’ll find it somewhere, but it’s not omnipresent. If you’re a rave person and you find friends who rave, you will probably find Molly. But not necessarily if you don’t want to.”
Nationally, only 32 percent of students claimed that they viewed MDMA as being “readily available” in 2012, down sharply from a peak of 52.5 percent in 2001.
Department of Public Safety Chief of Police Jay Gruber said that his department has never dealt with a case ofMDMA use or related drugs on campus to date, thoughDPS does strictly punish the illegal use of narcotics whenever it is encountered and cooperates with other campus partners to address drug abuse.
Nathaniel theorizes that hard drugs like MDMA are not nearly as popular as alcohol as a release mechanism of choice for Georgetown revelers because of students’ busy schedules.
“I think people here do party a lot, but there also is a work-or-business quality here. There are very few people who are completely ‘on vacation.’ Here, you don’t really have your weekends free. There are more fetters or constraints on you,” he said.
Still, the drug attracts a following on the Hilltop.
Anita (SFS ’14) grew up heavily immersed in the rave scene overseas and decided to complement her EDM experiences with Molly in her sophomore year of college.
“You feel really happy and connected with the people around you,” she said. “And to be honest, when you’re going to these concerts — especially if it’s a daylong music festival where you’re dancing all day — you get really tired, and if you were just drinking you’d get exhausted. If you’re doing drugs, you have more stamina and are less likely to think about the fact that you’ve been standing all day.”
DiBattista added that the popularity of MDMA at electronic concerts may be linked to its stimulation ofsynesthesia, a neurological phenomenon whereby one sensory system creates experiences in another.
“When many sounds are put together to form music, an equal number of colors come together to form a visual stimulus — something like fireworks,” she said.
Robynn Stilwell, an associate professor in Georgetown’s music department, emphasized the relationship between MDMA use and concertgoers’ desire for a communal experience.
“One of the really seductive elements of MDMA in all its guises is the way that it fosters a sense of connection and community,” Stilwell said. “People want the ‘getaway’ aspects of a communal experience as well as a personal one.”
For Andrew, enhanced education about the drug and its possible impurities is paramount to maintaining the integrity of rave and EDM culture.
“I think the rave culture can be a positive experience for people. I think it’s something valuable, and it’s because I love that culture and I love what it does for me. People actually get value out of it in moderation,” he said. “That’s why I want to protect it through smarter decisions, like using test kits.”
Anita had given little thought to the possible risks of impure MDMA.
“Sometimes I can take a much smaller amount, and other times a much larger amount and that must have to do with what it actually is. Talking to you I’m wondering why I do this,” she said, laughing. “I’m definitely getting one of those kits.”
The names of all admitted drug users who are Georgetown students have been fictionalized to protect the identities of these individuals from law enforcement or employer searches.
Special to The Hoya Griffin Cohen contributed reporting.