Bad Drugs: Ecstasy Often Doesn’t Contain Any MDMA, Study Shows

Music Festival
Study also found that purity testing at music festivals can curb use of adulterated drugs. Sebastien Bozon/Reuters

With the recent proliferation of summer music festivals has come an uptick in drug use. Just as common as the flower crowns and throwback NBA jerseys dotting festival grounds are the ecstasy pills, LSD tabs and other drugs in pockets of patrons. Many sneak their own drugs through security, while others buy what they need on site—and the only guarantee their newly purchased pills are legitimate is the word of the guy with dreads who surreptitiously handed them over behind a porta-potty. Nevertheless, concert-goers will knock them back and hope for the best.

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Scientists from Johns Hopkins University recently concluded a five-year study in which they analyzed data collected by volunteers who tested pills at music festivals and raves across the United States. Published Monday in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, the study found that recreational drug users may elect not to take drugs that tests show to be fake or altered. The study also found that Molly, billed as a purer form of MDMA, rarely contains more MDMA than standard ecstasy.

"People would be safest not taking any street drugs at all, but if free, no-fault testing can reduce deaths and other catastrophic consequences, it may be a service worth having," says Matthew W. Johnson, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "Our results suggest that some people will reject taking a pill to get high if it doesn't contain what they thought it did, or has harmful additives."

The tests analyzed by Johns Hopkins were conducted between July 2010 and July 2015 by DanceSafe, a nonprofit aimed at "promoting health and safety within the nightlife and electronic music community." The drugs were tested by scraping a small portion of powder from a pill, or gathering it out of a capsule, before running it through a chemical kit that would indicate which out of 29 identifiable substances the pill contained.

Over the course of the study, 529 samples believed to be MDMA were tested. Only 318—or just over 60 percent—were found to contain MDMA (or the closely related MDA). The adulterants were identifiable in only 90 of the 211 samples that did not contain MDMA, which means that the contents of 121 of the 529 samples—almost a quarter—were not recognizable. The most common identifiable adulterants were bath salts.

The study also found that festival-goers should be wary of what they are told is Molly, or pure MDMA. "Results suggest that the assumption in the literature that 'Molly' is less adulterated is incorrect, and patients who report ingesting any nominally MDMA-containing product must be considered at risk for diverse clinical overdose symptoms," the study read. In other words, just because a pill contains MDMA does not mean it is safe.

When asked whether they still planned to take the drugs they just had tested, 46 percent of those whose drugs were found to contain MDMA said they would, while 26 percent of those whose drugs tested negative for MDMA said they would go ahead and take them anyway. The volunteers were not able to confirm whether those surveyed did or did not follow through with their answers and take or decline to take the drugs they had tested.

"People who take pills and first responders need to know that no matter how the pills are branded or what name they are sold as, they almost always contain a mix of ingredients," says Johnson. "Our results should discourage a false sense of security about the purity and safety of so-called Molly."

As the study points out, the Drug Abuse Warning Network reported that Ecstasy-related visits to emergency rooms from 2004 to 2011 rose by 120 percent, and there have been numerous cases of health emergencies—and even deaths—related to Ecstasy consumption at music festivals. Installing testing stations at festivals could help stem the number of incidents, but organizers worry that doing so could open up the festivals to lawsuits, as sanctioning testing could be taken to mean they are willfully allowing the consumption of illegal drugs.

Monitoring the contents of illegal drugs at music festivals may be a near-impossible undertaking, but it's at least encouraging to know that conducting on-site tests does have an effect on whether festival attendees decide to ingest potentially harmful drugs.