Last weekend, 11 young people at Wesleyan University were hospitalized after overdosing on a common club drug known as Molly, or as MDMA, its active ingredient (also used in the club drug Ecstasy). After reading an article on this tragic news story, I scrolled down to the comments section and was surprised to see comments recommending that people “test” illegal drugs before taking them. The theme of their comments went something like this: If these young people overdosed, then the drug they took could not have been Molly, because Molly is pure; if only these kids had tested their product with a do-it-yourself drug kit, this all would never have happened.
In response to that argument, I could tell you about studies that show the ineffectiveness of these DIY tests, or that they usually can tell you only what ingredients exist, not what the percentages are. But if I did, I, like the commenters, would be missing the point, which is that using drugs is inherently dangerous, and they mask a larger problem.
First, while it may be true that Molly may be more dangerous when other drugs are added to it than when they aren’t, the idea that you can safely take “pure” Molly is false. Molly is a dangerous, powerful drug that can increase the heart rate, raise blood pressure, and raise body temperature so much that users are liable to strip off their clothes in zero-degree weather, making them susceptible to hypothermia. It can cause liver, kidney, or cardiovascular failure; in people who have preexisting high blood pressure—known or not—it can cause a stroke.
Molly is also an unregulated drug, which means you don’t get it from the pharmacy with a prescription from a doctor. That means you don’t have the benefit of knowing the correct dose or what the warnings are; there’s been no risk-benefit analysis, and no health professional has taken your other health issues into account. Any time you take a drug, you’re monkeying around with your brain chemistry, and there’s just no telling how your individual body will react. In addition, MDMA gives users a sense of inner peace, which alters their judgment and makes them easily victimized.
Second, by concentrating on the purity of the drug, we’re taking the focus off the larger picture, which is that there is something wrong with the fact that students are feeling like they need to do drugs in order to feel good, relax, de-stress, and have a good time. I hear a lot from kids in treatment that they started the drug just to party. Eventually, they came to depend on it in order to feel happy—and when they didn’t use it, they began to experience an increase in depression and anxiety. For these kids, Molly becomes an addiction whether it was “pure” or not. MDMA can give people a false sense that everything is good and happy in their lives, helping them mask their problems instead of dealing with them. That can be difficult to give up.
If we really want to help these kids, instead of telling them to test their illegal drugs before using them, we should help them find healthy ways to de-stress and deal with their feelings of anxiety and depression. What happened to these 11 young people is a tragedy, but it opens the door to an opportunity for the administrators of Wesleyan University to start a real dialogue with students about illegal drug use. They could make sure to have people trained as substance abuse clinicians on staff, and have them invite students to come to them with concerns. The college also should join together with the local police and with parents to coordinate efforts.
I have seen this kind of collaboration work. About a year ago, the police department near our program in Springfield, Massachusetts, noticed an uptick in students using Molly. The department immediately formed a coalition with community leaders, parents, and healthcare providers to be on the alert, to know what to look for, and how to talk to kids about the problem. Fortunately, we were able to reduce the use of this dangerous drug in the community.
The strong, unequivocal messages sent by University President Michael Roth and Police Chief William McKenna are a step in the right direction. Let’s just hope that when this story fades from the headlines, the resolve to fight drug use on campus doesn’t disappear, too.
Susan O’Connor, M.S.
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