"Molly," pictured here in pill form, can look pretty, but the side effects can be deadly.
UVA honors student Mary "Shelley" Goldsmith died on August 31 at a D.C. night club, reportedly after taking "Molly."
A young patient lies recovering at the University of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Poison Control Center after being treated for a severe drug overdose.
The drug in question is thought to be ecstasy, the common name for the far less sexy-sounding "Methylenedioxymethamphetamine," or MDMA, a psychoactive stimulant and popular recreational drug that burst onto the college party and club scene back in the early '80s and was criminalized by the FDA in 1986.
“I don’t know what happened,” the patient says, awaking in the hospital after being treated for some of the potentially devastating side effects that can include drug-induced dehydration, overhydration and seizures.
It’s something that Dr. Chris Holstege, the Center's director of medical toxicology, says he has heard many times from young adults who took the drug for the euphoria it produces. In fact, from the late '70s to the mid-80s an estimated half million doses were administered by psychiatric professionals studying the drug's effect on trauma survivors, according to a 1994 article in Psychology Today. Multiple recent studies published in peer reviewed journals including Addiction and the Journal of Psychopharmacology suggest MDMA can be a powerful tool in treating the psychological effects of trauma.
Other studies, however, offer a grimmer picture of the drug, suggesting permanent brain damage is possible. Side effects can be amplified by the amount of the drug taken and the source of the compound.
In the past month, as has been widely reported, four young adults on the East Coast, including UVA student and Jefferson Scholar Mary "Shelley" Goldsmith, have died after allegedly ingesting the drug, which is often cut with other questionable– and often unknown – substances.
“I’m worried sometimes they’ll think, ‘it will never happen to me; I’m smarter and have no history of medical problems,’" Holstege says of students' mindsets. "But they have to be aware that this can happen to anybody.”
The concerns surrounding MDMA have intensified in the past few weeks following Goldsmith's death in a D.C. club, but at least some of those who have taken the drug— often referred to as "Molly"— say that they won't rule out taking it again.
“I’ve done it twice for fun at Beach Week,” says one former UVA student, who was among those who spoke to the Hook on condition of anonymity. “It makes things more fun. Generally, sensations feel better, things are more exciting, music sounds better. Because it’s a stimulant, it produces empathy.”
“The first time I did it was at a big electric festival,” says another recent UVA grad. “It enhances all your senses. It makes everything cooler.”
Even among users, however, the risks are recognized.
“The biggest dangers are the inability to know that it’s pure, being able to trust your source, and needing to know what it’s cut with,” says that grad. “Molly is not particularly dangerous, but the things they are cut with may very well be.
“I have not [had a bad experience], nor had I heard of one before Shelley. I would not consider it dangerous with moderate use," adds the graduate. "Acute dangers usually arise from over-exertion, not drinking enough water or drinking too much [alcohol].”
Another graduate describes the mental effects the drug can have following its peak, which can last anywhere from three to five hours.
“You get really depressed,” he says. “You get a rush of endorphins the first day, then the next day you’re depleted. That’s what makes it addictive.
“It’s like a vicious cycle, then it becomes a medical issue; it messes with your brain. People say it’s like ‘taking a spoon to your brain,'" he says. "I wouldn’t take it more than once a year.”
Chris Holstege claims that even with these precautions there is no safe way to take Molly.
“Absolutely not," he asserts. "You don’t know what’s in it. Seventy-five percent of pills [purporting to be MDMA] are not ecstasy at all, but mixed with something. Every study done has shown this. You might happen to get PMA in it, one of the cathinodes that was in bath salts.”
Holstege explains that the dangers surrounding the drug go beyond its chemical makeup.
“The dose is based on weight; there are genetics that come into play,” he says. Environmental factors influence the drug's impact as well.
“If I’m at a dance where there’s not good air conditioning, and I’m sweating and replacing it with water and alcohol, ecstasy causes kidneys to retain sodium, and your brain can swell," says Holstege. "You can get seizures; you can have a hernia.”
Holstege recommends taking precautions when going out to popular night events where "Molly" may be present.
“It’s always good to have someone sober, “he says, suggesting that friend might help keep others from making poor choices. “Alcohol can lead to behavior you might not otherwise have done."
And for those who haven't taken his advice— or are confronted with a friend who may be having a bad reaction to the drug, he says time is of the essence.
“In an emergency, you can call the student poison center. It’s confidential, there’s a toll free number, they can help you with everything. The longer they wait for medical care, the harder it is for me to reverse it.”
“I don’t want any kid to have an adverse outcome," says Holstege. "The next pill you take may not be ecstasy. You might get away with it, but you might not.”
The 24-hour number for the Blue Ridge Poison Control Center is 1-800-222-1222. All calls are confidential.