When Pullman police responded to a call of a college student “screaming like a madman” last year, they found a cache of drugs: a leather pouch with 18 vials of different substances, bags of psychedelic mushrooms and about two pounds of a drug they believed to be Molly, a popular form of Ecstasy.
But the drug wasn’t Molly, according to reports from the Washington State Patrol crime laboratory. It was methylone, a bath salt that has been linked to cardiac arrest, organ failure and hyperthermia. Even trained law enforcement officers can be tricked by the similar chemical structures but different biological reactions of Molly and methylone, according to researchers.
At universities in Washington and Idaho, alcohol and marijuana continue to present the most common substance abuse problems. But law enforcement officers say the growing use of Molly, and the lack of knowledge about the contents of the pill, have raised concerns about a drug that most students assume is safe.
“It’s just amazing the chemicals people will put in their bodies,” said Washington State Patrol Sgt. Brad Hudson, who leads a drug task force that monitors Whitman, Latah, Asotin and Nez Perce counties.
Molly often contains other, cheaper drugs, including methylone and methamphetamine, according to law enforcement and drug experts.
“You don’t know what you’re getting,” said Cassandra Nichols, director of Counseling and Testing Services at WSU. “You’re getting a whole wide variety of stuff mixed in there, including meth.”
When Pullman police Officer Wade Winegardner searched the apartment of the Pullman student in 2012, he found a jar full of white powder. A field test indicated it was Ecstasy or Molly. But when Winegardner sent it to a lab for analysis, the results showed methylone.
“There’s no way to determine exactly what it is unless you do a lab test,” Winegardner said. “Essentially, you’re at the mercy of how much you trust your drug dealer.”
For student, the goal is to roll
A 21-year-old history major at WSU, who asked not to be identified because he plans on a teaching career, said he first took Molly at a concert two years ago. Priced at about $10 a pill, the hallucinogenic drug provides a high that sustains him through parties and concerts.
“I’ve been very careful,” said the student, adding that he’ll only consume Molly that he’s obtained from his friends.
“There’s a lot of trust involved with drugs,” he said.
But Nichols said trusting a drug dealer is like having unprotected sex. She said it’s important to think through the consequences.
“(People think) that somehow because it’s in pill form, and it looks like a prescription pill, that it’s something that’s regulated, which it’s not,” she said. “Or that somehow it being a more pure form of Ecstasy means something; it doesn’t.”
This past June a recent WSU graduate died while attending the Paradiso Festival, a two-day gathering that attracted 25,000 concert attendees. Initially, hospital and police sources attributed the death to Molly, but a laboratory report released last month showed that he died of dehydration caused by the heat and methamphetamine intoxication.
“It was a tough one,” said Chelan County Coroner Wayne Harris.
In pill form, is it Molly or methylone?
Molly, which is often referred to as MDMA, short for methylenedioxymethamphetamine, can cause surges in dopamine and serotonin, which can create feelings of euphoria.
But today, Molly and methylone are often sold as the same drug on the streets, experts say. Methylone, or bath salts, is often cheaper than Molly and provides similar effects to users, said John White, chairman and professor of WSU’s Pharmacotherapy Department.
Molly is much more difficult to manufacture than a drug like methamphetamine, White said.
“You aren’t (going to) go down to the grocery store and pick up the ingredients,” he said. “The amateur person trying to synthesize it, they’re (going to) come up with a lot of different compounds in their beaker and a lot of impurities.”
Law enforcement experts believe the drugs are often transported into the U.S. from labs in Canada.
The drugs are categorized as enactogens, very powerful psychiatric compounds that make people feel ecstatic, connected, warm and empathetic, White said.
Both Molly and methylone are addictive, said White.
“The drugs that are truly addictive all cause this surge of dopamine in the mid-brain, and these drugs do that,” he said.
The adverse effects of the drugs cause heart rate and blood pressure to go up, and temperature to rise to a dangerous level, he said. They can cause confusion, paranoia, anxiety, seizures and changes in the body’s chemical balance, including a dangerous drop in sodium levels, White said.
“It’s complicated to sort out exactly what’s going on because many of the toxic cases, the people taking the compound have ingested other compounds as well,” White said. “They might have alcohol, they might have cannabis, they might have methamphetamine and one of these compounds in their system.”
White said more research is needed to understand the effects of mixing Molly with other drugs or alcohol.
“There’s still a nagging question about chronic ingestion and whether or not it causes permanent brain damage, which is really difficult to measure,” he said.
For concertgoers, Molly can mask the symptoms of heat exhaustion: thirst, rise in body temperature and a general sense of sickness.
“Molly keeps you from feeling that way,” said Dr. Dennis Garcia, director of Health and Wellness Services at WSU, “so you end up going into heat exhaustion and heatstroke, and that’s what kills you.”
On campus, counseling, not scare tactics
Though exact numbers aren’t available, an increasing number of students are showing up at WSU’s health clinic and the Pullman hospital after taking Molly, according to Melynda Huskey, dean of students at WSU.
“It’s cheap, it’s widely available. Those are always two things we worry about with drugs and students,” Huskey said.
While there are no statistics on the number of people seen by Pullman Regional for Molly-related treatments, the emergency room does see people coming in with symptoms related to the drug, said Dr. Pete Mikkelsen, medical director for Emergency Services at Pullman Regional Hospital.
“I don’t want to say that it’s uncommon and give the impression that it’s not a major issue, because I think that it is,” Mikkelsen said. “It depends on what’s available in the community. From my understanding it’s not difficult to get ahold of MDMA, Ecstasy or Molly.”
But the drug can have serious side effects, Mikkelsen said.
“We’ve had people who’ve gotten pretty sick from Molly,” he said. “And certainly people across the country have gotten very sick. People even died from complications associated with the drug.”
But university experts say scare tactics rarely work with college students.
“We need to have some frank conversations, because some very negative harms can occur,” said Patricia Maarhuis, coordinator of WSU’s alcohol and drug counseling services. “We’re not using scare tactics. We’re using it more in terms of ‘Let’s look at the context’ and how many students would be vulnerable to the same situation.”