Starting Friday, Ultra Music Festival is expected to attract more than 160,000 young people from across the world to party with hundreds of international DJs and music artists.
This year, it’s attracting something else: Molly.
Molly is a party drug that is a derivative of Ecstasy, which has fueled dance parties for decades. It appeared on the dance-music and hip-hop scenes around early 2011 — billed as pure MDMA, the amphetamine that is the prime ingredient of Ecstasy. It comes as crystals or as a white powder inside a capsule and can cause high blood pressure, a rapid heart rate, possible brain injury and even heart attacks.
“There’s a lot of psychiatric long-term effects, and certainly there’s injury that you can do to your brain,” said Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein, medical director of poison control at Jackson Memorial Hospital. “We don’t even know all the long-term effects because the drug has only recently been re-popularized.”
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It’s popular in electronic music clubs in Miami, and police are expecting the drug to be rampant at Ultra, the country’s largest electronic music festival. This year for the first time, Ultra will run for two full weekends: Friday-Sunday and March 22-24 at Bayfront Park in downtown Miami.
The drug, sold for $10 to $25 a capsule, is a new way to market a familiar drug. It got a memorable boost last year at Ultra, when Madonna went on stage and shouted to the audience: “How many people in this crowd have seen Molly?”
“Molly is a new phenomenon. Something that is still developing,” said Maj. Jorge Martin, commander of the Miami Police Special Investigation Section, which deals with high-end illegal narcotics.“When Madonna made her ... remark, we were starting to see it. A year later, our investigation has grown twofold.”
If Molly started out as pure MDMA, it often isn’t now. Miami Dade police have found that Molly also can contain methylone, a chemical found in bath salts. But whatever its makeup, Molly can cause trouble.
A 2012 study done by three researchers at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine found three young men treated at Jackson’s emergency room suffered brain hemorrhages after ingesting Molly. None of the three cases — all men in their 20s — had any previous brain abnormalities. Usually, patients who hemorrhage after using other drugs, such as cocaine or crystal meth, had a pre-existing neurological condition.
“We have this anecdote of three patients who have no other reasons to have hemorrhages in the brain after a short period after they had Molly. They had hemorrhages just with the ingestion of the drug,” said Ronald J. Benveniste, assistant professor of Clinical Neurological Surgery at the UM Miller School of Medicine and one of the authors of the study. “We wanted to make the point that Molly is not safe — even if it’s allegedly purified or an actual purified form of MDMA.”
Miami police reports show Molly was confiscated and submitted for testing 207 times in 2011. Of those tests, 190 substances contained MDMA, while only 17 contained methylone. By 2012, the police confiscations were up to 337, a 63 percent increase. Testing showed 278 samples contained methylone and 59 contained MDMA.
MDMA and methylone have similar effects on the body, although methylone and other bath salts can lead to depression and suicidal thoughts after the drug is out of the body, especially if the user has an underlying mental illness.
“They tend to have a psychiatric phenomenon,” Bernstein said. “That seems to be a phenomenon that we are seeing with the bath salts that we don’t see as much with amphetamines or methamphetamines.”
Mick Elle, 37, a musician and former DJ raised in Miami, had a three-month depression that he blames on Molly.
“What I hate about Molly is I had a hangover of two or three weeks. Took me three months to recover,” Elle said. “It’s such a blowup. But when you go up, eventually you will have to go down.”
The Florida Poison Information Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital received its first calls related to Molly in 2011. From 2011 to 2012, the number of calls more than doubled, from eight to 20 calls.
Katie Victoria, 27, a student at Broward College, first heard about Molly when she moved to Miami four years ago from Maryland.
“Before I moved to Miami, I never had heard of such a term,” Victoria said. “I don’t think anywhere else in the United States it’s as popular as here.”
But as popular as it may be, Molly is not a high law enforcement priority because it is not nearly as prevalent as cocaine and marijuana and leads to far less street violence, said Lt. Dan Kerr, commander of the Crime Suppression Unit of the Miami Police Department.
That changes during Ultra.
“Ultra is really when we work the buys,” Kerr said. “That’s when big shipments come in.”
Victoria went to Ultra in 2010 and doesn’t plan to go again.
“A lot of the 18-year-old kids cannot even buy alcohol, so obviously what they are doing is Molly,” said Victoria. She reported seeing partiers take 10 pills in one Ultra night.
“You really think they’re gonna do one Molly and that’s it? No, because kids are not that responsible,” she said. “They don’t think about their health that way.”
A spokesman for Ultra said no one was available to comment, as they were too busy preparing for the event. The festival’s policy, listed on its website, says the possession of any illegal substance is not tolerated. Security is extremely tight and all bags are searched at the gate.
Jose Gutierrez, 24, an events promoter in Miami who has been going to Ultra for five years, said everyone is on drugs.
“If they are not on drugs, they are not having fun,” said Gutierrez, who says he has taken Molly at Ultra since 2010.
“You feel the music in your body. It’s like tickling in the inside and that’s what makes you smile,” he said. “You smile and you don’t stop dancing.”
By the end of an Ultra weekend as many as 50 people might overdose and need medical treatment after taking Molly and other drugs, Kerr said.
The Miami Police Department’s Special Events unit, which will coordinate the officers that will staff the event, have met with local merchants and residents about possible route changes during the event.
Documented health effects aside, Molly is popular in the music world. Kanye West, Lil’ Wayne and 2 Chainz have referenced the drug in their lyrics. Madonna used her Molly remark to release MDNA, her 12th studio album, at last year’s Ultra — wearing its controversial title emblazoned on a T-shirt at the festival.
And Miami-based international DJ Cedric Gervais, 33, released a single in April 2012 called Molly.
“It’s about a girl because I was looking for this girl called Molly,” said Gervais, a resident at the Fontainebleau Hotel club LIV. “The crowd is thinking MDMA, that’s the controversy of it.”