Surprise: A Large Share of ‘Molly’ Brought to Music Festivals Doesn’t Actually Contain MDMA, Hopkins Researchers Say

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The Electric Daisy Carnival in Los Angeles in 2010. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Johns Hopkins researchers have some bad news for today’s many pill-popping music festivalgoers: a large share of purported “Molly” tested at five years’ worth of concerts actually contained none of the drug.

A medical research team from the school, led by psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor Matthew Johnson, partnered up on a study with the nonprofit DanceSafe, which tested samples of concertgoers’ drugs for free (and without penalty) from July 2010 through July 2015. For the tests, volunteers set up booths at festivals and scraped off bits of pills or powder from willing subjects and added them to sets of testing chemicals to identify 29 color-coded substances.

The results found that 60 percent of the folks who said they bought “Molly” – a nickname for MDMA, a supposedly purer form of the party drug ecstasy that is supposed to have fewer additives – succeeded, but the rest purchased something else entirely. In fact, in the not-Molly batch of samples, the most commonly ID’d substances were so-called bath salts, the same drugs that spawned headlines years ago about users morphing into flesh-hungry cannibals. The next most common drug in the adulterated batch: methamphetamine.

“People who take pills and first responders need to know that no matter how the pills are branded or what name they are sold as, they almost always contain a mix of ingredients,” Johnson said in a statement. “Our results should discourage a false sense of security about the purity and safety of so-called Molly.”

The work by Johnson and his co-authors, Sarah Saleemi, Steven Pennybaker (both of Hopkins) and Missi Wooldridge of Healthy Nightlife, LLC, could potentially help convince more venues to allow on-site pill-testing to make the experience safer for those in the crowd. Upon learning that their pills or baggies did not in fact have the drugs they wanted, one in four respondents told DanceSafe’s volunteers they planned to forego following through with using them.

Some fine print about the research: The sample size for respondents (168) was even smaller than the already small sample of goods tested (529), and the DanceSafe volunteers weren’t able to confirm what the people they talked to actually did with the drugs after parting ways.

Nonetheless, the study does offer some insight into what people are actually taking during an ongoing era of high-risk party drug use at electronic dance music concerts. Major festivals in Tampa, MiamiLas Vegas and New York have all seen attendees die from drug overdoses in recent years.

This study also confirms similar findings from a research team at NYU.

The results of the Hopkins study were published today in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

Ethan McLeod
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Ethan McLeod

Associate Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan is Baltimore Fishbowl's associate editor. He previously covered Baltimore-area news as a web producer for Fox45/WBFF-TV. Before arriving in Baltimore, he worked as an assistant editor for CQ Researcher in Washington D.C., and a reporter for Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. Look for his freelance bylines in Baltimore City Paper and DCist.
Ethan McLeod
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