Blake, a fast-rising junior executive at a major movie studio, was sipping champagne in the back of a chartered black SUV en route to a party in the Hills when one of the members of his tipsy cohort—all West Hollywood creative types—pulled out a baggie of off-white powder. Blake (who asked that his real name not be used) gave up coke years ago and now, as an on-and-off vegan who generally sticks to locavore principles, treats his body as a temple. But his friends in the SUV weren't doing key bumps—one by one, they were dipping their fingers into the baggie and, like misbehaving children, greedily licking them clean. This is Molly, they explained: pure MDMA. The beloved molecule that you hope you're getting, but often aren't, when you buy Ecstasy.
"No one was really asking, 'Is it pure, is it chill?'" Blake says. "They were just diving right in." So he dabbed some powder on a fingertip and licked it off. A raw-chemical awfulness sucked at his jaw, then faded...
Half an hour later, as Blake dangled his bare feet in his host's pool, a blossom of euphoria spread through his chest, then closed over his head, as though he'd ducked under the water in a Jacuzzi. Blake felt his senses waking up and sharpening. The lightest of breezes stirring on his skin set off little shivers of pleasure. Time slowed to a lazy, lush haze, passing weirdly. His friends, strolling poolside, were tipping more Molly into their champagne flutes, but Blake felt no need to chase the dragon—it was curled up in his lap.
"With coke, weed, and Ecstasy, there's always some uncertainty, but I've never had a bad experience on Molly," says Blake, who's since become a recreational user—occasionally dosing with celebrities at Soho House and at parties full of artists in the Hollywood Hills. "People are looking for more of a sure bet, and that's Molly—the least amount of worry and the best possible outcome."
If a generation's drug of choice reveals something about an era's zeitgeist, it's natural that Millennials, who grew up with anxieties about hormone-laced milk and genetically altered tomatoes, would latch on to the purity of Molly. Of course, that "purity" is manufactured in a laboratory, but that provides a clue to the effectiveness of its new brand name: Molly, short for molecular, serves as a sort of seal of authenticity among discerning types for whom provenance deeply matters. They speak of their experiences in the reverential tones with which oenophiles discuss terroir; if MDMA is Pinot Noir, then Molly is a grand cru. They'll tell you it's free of the additives and fillers (which range from methamphetamine to ibuprofen to talcum powder) that can make an Ecstasy roll such a grinding, sweaty ordeal. Selling for $15 a "point" (or 0.1 gram), a single dose will flood your brain with serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, lifting you a few hundred thousand feet clear of hang-ups and anxiety. Thus borne aloft, you won't feel any speed-freak compulsion to jog in place to Dutch techno or babble on about "energy flow," because while Molly reveals the profound depths of your emotions, it leaves intact your ability to express them. And unlike with Ecstasy, converts say, the landing is as soft and gentle as the takeoff.
One thing they might not be fully aware of, however, is that the name Molly appeals to their self-image just as much as it conveys something about the product itself—Molly is the clear-eyed hipster girl next door, whereas Ecstasy is more like the shagged-out stripper. "That's the brand impact of the word Molly," says Hamilton Morris, host of the online TV show Hamilton's Pharmacopeia and a radical purist who advocates using exclusively technical terminology when naming drugs. "I can't say with certainty that I would dislike anyone who says 'Molly,' but that does seem to be a general pattern. They're acting as if they have something new."
Indeed, MDMA has been "pure" before—as Adam, XTC, or Ecstasy—but every time the drug's popularity reaches a critical mass, the supply inevitably gets corrupted and MDMA's outward-facing brand image takes a big hit. Then, about every decade, it makes a comeback. "We're in the third cycle of MDMA use," says Nathan Messer, the chairman of the nonprofit organization DanceSafe in 2009's "Empire State of Mind," a new breed of psychonauts were already learning from drug-geek sites like Erowid.org and Bluelight.ru how dangerous street-slug X had become—and about Molly, the new pure alternative on the scene. And as hundreds of thousands of next-gen ravers flock to festivals like Electric Zoo in New York, Ultra in Miami, and the roving Electric Daisy Carnival, the word is spreading even more quickly, such that today, a new kind of user has joined the MDMA love parade: the sort of conscientious folks who eat only organic and drink only fair-trade.
"It's like emotional psychedelia, but it has none of the negative, intimidating effects that other drugs, even weed, can have," says Caleb, a 26-year-old portrait photographer based in New York City. "It's a perfect drug." Like a window-box gardener discussing his heirloom basil, Caleb (who asked that his real name not be used) seeks out Molly that isn't a powder but an uncrushed yellow-amber crystal fresh from the chemist. (According to Morris, "People have this false idea that a powder is somehow inherently more pure than a tablet. But once a tablet's been pressed, it can't be adulterated, whereas a powder can be stepped on or cut by every single person who touches it.") If Caleb's buying a capsule from someone he doesn't know, he insists on opening it up and touching a few grains to his tongue. "If it's pure," he says, "it makes your cheeks tense up, which is the weirdest thing. But that's how you know." If the dealer won't let him try it first, "I don't fuck around with it."
Caleb is applying the Michael Pollan approach to his vice of choice: Educate yourself and stay low on the food chain. But not every would-be user is as savvy or as safe. In the past two years, the Electric Daisy Carnival has seen two attendees die and dozens hospitalized as a result of what were said to be MDMA-related causes. And in a massive bust last August in the college town of Syracuse, New York, the $500,000 worth of Molly that police seized contained no MDMA at all. The incident prompted a group of students to launch a website debunking Molly as an urban legend.
"The No. 1 risk with MDMA is drug substitution," says Julie Holland, a New York University psychiatry professor who has run trials investigating MDMA's therapeutic potential. Dr. Holland deems MDMA "relatively safe" when used in a controlled environment (in fact, the compound has been found to be remarkably effective as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder), but out on the street, she says, "you can never be sure of what you're getting." In legitimate markets, increasing demand tends to improve quality; with illicit drugs, it often does the opposite. "For the longest time, we would almost never see something sold as Molly that wasn't," DanceSafe's Messer says. "It was like a cottage industry comprised of relatively ethical psychedelics manufacturers. They liked MDMA, and they wanted other people to be able to have it." But now that Molly is such a hot commodity, its strongest selling points—purity and a worry-free roll—are most at risk of being exploited by dealers.
Yet despite its popularity, there's evidently still enough small-batch Molly making good on its promise of wholesomeness to move beyond the rave and party scenes and into more serene settings. Frankie (who asked that his last name not be used), a 26-year-old underwear model who lives in Hollywood, was turned on to Molly by a museum curator who invited him, a clothier, and a DJ to his home to try it out—while meditating. "We're all Trader Joe's, free-range-chicken types," Frankie says—body-conscious, nonsmoking, moderate drinkers who assiduously avoid factory-produced food. "The rest of L.A. does Ecstasy. Molly's definitely more of a West Hollywood thing."
When they arrived, the curator's living room was lit with candles. Faint chill-out music was being piped through concealed speakers. The four sat on the floor cross-legged, wrapped some Molly up in tissue paper (which conceals the harsh chemical taste), and "parachuted" it.
"We meditated until 1 a.m.," Frankie says. "Then we went out and partied. It was a gradual ascent and a gradual descent—not like the Ecstasy rocket ship. Since then, I've done Molly at the Philharmonic."
For all its heady appeal to notions of purity and good taste, Molly is superior to stepped-on pills and powders in an entirely practical sense: Sex on Molly, Caleb says, is not only unbelievably intense but also hassle-free—which can't always be said of speed-spiked E. It's so good, he says, that some connoisseurs actually recommend against it. "They're like, 'Don't do it! It'll be too different when you're sober!'" But even for Caleb, who loves the stuff, that ascribes a near-mythical power to Molly that no drug deserves. "You can have a great time either way," he says, and in the end that's what makes Molly so alluring. "You're the architect of your own experience."
• • •
BATTLE OF THE BRANDS: ECSTASY VS. MOLLY
MOLLY: Beach house Candy Doppelgänger
MOLLY: Sugar in the Raw The Tell
ECSTASY: Teeth grinding
MOLLY: Finger licking Chaser
ECSTASY: Red Bull
MOLLY: Kombucha Ground Zero for Users
ECSTASY: South of Market, San Francisco
MOLLY: Farmer's market, Hollywood Pilgrimage Site
ECSTASY: Burning Man
MOLLY: Marfa, Texas Anthem
ECSTASY: The Prodigy, "Smack My Bitch Up"
MOLLY: MGMT, "Time to Pretend" Co-opted by Madonna
ECSTASY: Ray of Light
MOLLY: MDNA Grooming Product
ECSTASY: Neon face paint
MOLLY: Kiehl's Facial Fuel Collective Activity
ECSTASY: Group dancing
MOLLY: Group meditation Denim of Choice
MOLLY: Naked & Famous/Slim Hangover Cure
ECSTASY: Morning spliff
MOLLY: Morning jog Jewelry of Choice
ECSTASY: Nose ring
MOLLY: Wedding ring Best End Result
• • •
Evolution of a Love Drug: A Brief History of MDMA
A Merck chemist synthesizes MDMA while attempting to create a blood coagulant.
The U.S. Army tests the toxic effects of MDMA on animals.
Alexander Shulgin, a former Dow chemist, introduces it to psychotherapist Leo Zeff, who dubs the molecule Adam for its ability to return the user to a "primordial" state.
Timothy Leary marries his fourth wife after sharing his first Ecstasy experience with her; he later cautions against "a sixties situation... where sleazy characters hang around college dorms peddling pills they falsely call XTC to lazy thrill-seekers."
MDMA becomes popular in New York gay clubs Paradise Garage and the Saint.
In San Francisco, users of an MDMA-like designer drug—synthetic heroin—are stricken with Parkinson's-like symptoms, leading to nationwide fears that Ecstasy produces such effects.
The U.S. outlaws MDMA.
The modern-day rave is born on the island of Ibiza.
New York DJ Frankie Bones brings U.K.-style warehouse raves—known as Storm Raves—to Brooklyn.
In Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet, Mercutio offers Romeo a pill that resembles Ecstasy.
"I wrote two songs for the next album on Ecstasy," Eminem admits in Rolling Stone, referring to the Slim Shady LP; during the interview, he pops three tabs.
Ecstasy lands on the cover of Time; one interviewee touts it as "a six-hour orgasm."
A congressional hearing reports that Ecstasy seizures by U.S. Customs rose to over 9 million tablets in the previous year, up from 400,000 in 1997.
A study using MDMA to treat PTSD conducted at the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid yields positive results.
24 Hour Party People, which memorializes the E-fueled "Madchester" scene led by Factory Records head and Hacienda nightclub owner Tony Wilson, is released.
Jay-Z releases "Empire State of Mind," which features the lyric: "MDMA got you feeling like a champion."
Playing a serial killer (think next-gen Patrick Bateman) in French synth-pop group the Shoes' video for "Time to Dance," Jake Gyllenhaal murders an unsuspecting hipster couple, then dips into their bag of Molly.