Fact Check: How Dangerous Is Molly, the New ‘It’ Drug?

Learn about the drug that may have taken two lives at a music festival.

September 3, 2013, 12:25 PM
PHOTO: zoo
Avicii performs during Electric Zoo 2013 at Randall's Island on August 30, 2013 in New York City.
Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images

Sept. 3, 2013— -- If you listen to electronic music, you’re probably familiar with molly.

Molly is basically the same as ecstasy. They’re both incarnations of the club drug MDMA, which gives you that “love everyone around you” feeling and pairs well with hypnotic, bass-driven music.

But molly can also mess with your body temperature in ways that can be dangerous, and even fatal.

The awful potential for something to go wrong appears to have come true for two young people at an electronic music festival this weekend on Randall’s Island in New York City. A 23-year-old graduate student at Syracuse University and a 20-year-old student at the University of New Hampshire both died after taking the drug and attending the Electric Zoo festival.

The exact details haven’t been released yet, but the incident could be frightening for anyone who takes molly or knows someone who does.

Here are some facts about the drug and the dangers that come with taking it:

1. You don’t know what it’s cut with.

One of the selling points that you commonly hear about molly is that it’s “pure MDMA,” as opposed to ecstasy, which can be cut with cocaine, amphetamines or something as relatively innocuous as caffeine or Benadryl.

While the molly you’re getting could be pure, there’s no way to know for sure, according to Charles Grob, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the UCLA School of Medicine who has studied MDMA extensively.

“Molly is no different than ecstasy; it’s just some clever marketers figuring they needed a new name to move their product,” he said. “There’s no reason to suspect that molly will not be prone to the same degree of drug substitution as ecstasy.

“You’re getting underground manufacture, underground package, underground distributed; there’s no controls for that,” he said. “All bets are off.”

2. You need to drink water when it's hot.

As far as recreational drugs go, MDMA is relatively safe, aside from what it might be cut with.

None of the federal health or drug abuse agencies track deaths from MDMA, but experts say fatalities are relatively rare when the drug is taken alone. The New York Times reported that just two people died in New York City after taking the drug by itself from 1997 to 2000.

Roughly 80,000 people die from excessive alcohol consumption each year, as a point of comparison.

Of course, any fatality is tragic. And the risks tied to MDMA increase depending on the environment you take it in.

The festival in New York over the weekend was hot and crowded, with lots of people dancing and sweating. That can dehydrate you and set off other problems for certain people who react negatively, according to Grob.

“It can cause severe hyperthermia,” he said. “Temperatures can skyrocket up to around 105 degrees Farenheit, which is extremely high and can cause -- rapidly -- liver failure, kidney failure, seizures and death.”

We won’t know exactly what caused the two deaths at the music festival for a few weeks, when the New York City medical examiner’s office releases its findings.

Most people take the drug without a severe reaction like this, Grob said. But using MDMA in a hot place without staying hydrated can make you more likely to have a bad reaction.

Drinking alcohol while you’re taking molly can make you even more dehydrated, and up the risk.

But if you're not sweating and losing bodily fluids, drinking too much water can actually have a negative effect.

"For someone who is resting comfortably and not exercising, and is in a cooler environment, excessive water ingestion can pose a risk of developing a syndrome of water intoxication, which can lead to death," Grob said. "Women are far more prone to water intoxication than men, as MDMA will induce greater secretion in women of a hormone called vasopressin, which causes fluid retention."

3. The way the government classifies MDMA makes it harder to study.

Molly is classified as a Schedule One drug by the federal government. That means they believe it has “no currently accepted medical use” and “a high potential for abuse.”

Grob thinks we could better understand the drug -- including its potential to be used for medical treatment -- if it wasn’t treated this way by the government.

“It is possible to do research with Schedule One drugs, but there are many regulatory hurdles one has to go through, and many research groups are very reluctant to go through such a lengthy, arduous task,” he said.

Funding for this type of research is also an issue.

“Funding to do clinical research with MDMA is extremely limited,” he said. “And there’s been no government funding for any exploration of MDMA’s potential in a treatment model.”

Overall, the threat of death posed by MDMA is relatively small, but it’s still worth learning about what the drug can do to you.

“When compared against the vast numbers who take the drug, it’s a relatively small number,” Grob said. “Nevertheless, each and every one of these fatalities is tragic. They’re all preventable, and more often than not, they involve young people, which makes it even more tragic.”

Update, Sept. 5: I updated this article to clarify that drinking too much water when you're not losing fluids can also have a health risk for MDMA users.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events