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With feel-good drug Molly, the party can turn deadly

A Nampa teen described being a shy high school junior when she first tried Molly, a drug that’s popular at clubs, raves and electronic dance music shows. She was at a house party when someone offered it to her and she gave it a try.

“I didn’t know anything about it,” she said.

“It was kind of the most amazing feeling I’ve ever felt before, honestly,” she said, asking that her name be withheld because her parents don’t know about her “phase” of drug experimentation. “Anybody who passed me, or brushed up against me, I don’t know how to describe it. ...”

Molly, a new version of the 1980s club drug Ecstasy, is a stimulant that heightens the senses, making a simple touch feel intensely pleasurable. It is best known for creating feelings of euphoria and emotional empathy and warmth toward others. Those chasing that high may not understand that because Molly use is illegal, its suppliers can include dangerous additives that can cause adverse, even fatal reactions.

The state Health and Welfare Department’s Idaho Youth Prevention Survey in 2014 showed that 13 percent of high school seniors had experimented with one or all of a half-dozen “hard drugs,” including Ecstasy. Other drugs in that category: cocaine, uppers, downers, heroin, meth and synthetics such as Spice.

The Nampa teen, now an 18-year-old senior, said Molly made her feel more confident, outgoing and talkative. But she had some bad “come-downs” from Molly, including aching body and extreme lethargy. She believes that in some cases the Molly that she thought she was taking had some other drug mixed in, or was another drug entirely.

That’s not just possible — it’s likely, according to law enforcement officials, who have warned the community about such a threat. But ingesting even the purest form of Molly — the manmade chemical compound methylenedioxymethylamphetamine, or MDMA — can be deadly in some rare circumstances.

A DEATH IN BOISE

It was last fall when Boise police called a news conference to warn the public that drug dealers claiming to sell Molly and LSD were actually giving buyers the synthetic drugs bath salts, 2C and 25i.

Police cited cases of five people, including three teens, who exhibited violent and dangerous behavior after using those drugs. They said lab tests of illicit drugs confiscated from users in the Treasure Valley indicated that Molly and LSD weren’t in circulation, even though that’s what buyers thought they were getting.

At the time, it was unknown if the death of a 23-year-old Boise woman who became ill while attending the Safe in Sound Festival at CenturyLink Arena on Oct. 14 was part of this drug-switching phenomenon. Esther M. Young died the next day at a local hospital. Her family declined to comment for this story.

In February, the Ada County Coroner’s Office released the report on Young’s death to the Statesman. The report listed the cause of her death as an overdose of methylenedioxyamphetamine, or MDA, a psychedelic that produces hallucinogenic effects.

MDA is the parent drug of MDMA, which is sold on the street as Ecstasy and Molly. MDA was a cultural phenomenon first. Hippies in the 1960s dubbed MDA “the love drug” and “Mellow Drug America,” according to “Ecstasy: The Complete Guide, A Comprehensive Look at the Risks and Benefits of MDMA.”

Health officials warn that these drugs can be dangerous at hot, crowded dance parties and festivals. They give users boundless energy, but also can interfere with the body’s ability to regulate temperature. Festival-goers high on the drugs may dance for hours and fail to drink enough fluids to cool down. Most will recover, but some may suffer severe dehydration and hyperthermia, or excessively high body temperature. Hyperthermia can cause vital organs to shut down. Some users suffer seizures.

“Some people take this drug, and they’re fine. Other people take it and they overheat and die. It’s unpredictive,” said Dr. Kenny Bramwell, chairman of the Emergency Department at Saint Luke’s Boise Medical Center.

Though such drug deaths are typically called “overdoses,” Bramwell said these adverse reactions don’t always appear related to the quantity taken.

The vast majority of drug overdoses treated in local emergency rooms is for alcohol, officials at St. Luke’s and Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center said. Prescription drug overdoses are a close second, with illicit drugs a distant third.

In February and March, Saint Alphonsus treated 35 people for drug overdoses. The breakdown on which drugs was not immediately available.

‘A LOT OF BAD TRIPS’

Security staff at CenturyLink Arena on Oct. 14 summoned trained paramedics to check out Young and her friends, who were sitting against a wall outside the arena after being asked to leave, according to the police reports. The male in the trio was described by security as belligerent and noncompliant, and Young was “completely out of it,” with oversized pupils and nonsensical speech, according to an unnamed EMT whose account is included in the police report.

Paramedics urged them to come back inside so they could examine Young. The male refused any help and swore at them, the police report says. “We explained to him there had been a lot of bad trips going on, probably secondary to some bad acid, and it would be best if we got her to a hospital,” the paramedic said in his statement to police. Young’s friends declined assistance.

About 10:30 p.m., emergency personnel were summoned to a house in Downtown Boise and arrived to find someone trying to give Young CPR. She was unresponsive and not breathing, but alive when they transported her to the hospital.

Paramedics found a baggie with a capsule and white powder near her, according to the police report. Her friends said it was probably Molly; they said they were unsure how many she had consumed.

Young was not the only person who attended the Safe in Sound Festival to be hospitalized.

•  At 7:52 p.m., a 17-year-old female was transported from CenturyLink to St. Luke’s for a possible LSD overdose, according to Ada County Dispatch records.



•  At 1:32 p.m., Boise police were called to CenturyLink for a report of a young man making a disturbance, according to police records. Officers found the man with his pants off (possibly having defecated on himself), sweating profusely and with a dangerously high body temperature. He was transported to the hospital as a drug, possibly acid, overdose.



•  At 12:25 a.m., police found a naked man tearing letters off a Downtown business sign. The man, who police believed had been at the EDM show, had injured himself. He told police he had taken Molly, but was found in possession of amphetamines.



DEATHS RARE

Ecstasy overdose deaths appear to be rare in Idaho. Data show two from 2009 to 2013, according to Idaho Department of Health and Welfare data.

Other Ecstasy deaths during that time period may not have been listed on the death certificates. Coroners who certify deaths are required to report the underlying cause of death, but not required to report the drugs on the death certificate, said Health and Welfare spokeswoman Niki Forbing-Orr.

Though there are risks in using MDMA, federal officials believe the drug may be beneficial under a doctor’s supervision. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved studies into whether it can help those suffering post-traumatic stress and anxiety/depression in cancer patients.

CDC WARNED OF OVERDOSE CLUSTERS

Ecstasy overdoses have made national news over the past five years.

In 2010, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned the public about overdose “clusters” after 18 people were hospitalized and one died at a New Year’s Eve rave in Los Angeles.

The last day of the three-day Electric Zoo festival in New York City was canceled in 2013 after the deaths of two people attending the electronic dance music festival. The overdose victims, ages 20 and 23, collapsed with high body temperatures, The New York Times reported.

In February, the hospitalization of 12 at the Wesleyan University campus in Connecticut drew national attention. William McKenna, the police chief in Middleton, Conn., said that the students had suffered life-threatening effects from a “bad batch” of Molly. Some said that characterization was misleading.

“There’s no such thing as a ‘good batch’ when you’re dealing with these synthetic drugs,” Anthony Pettigrew, a spokesman for the New England division of the Drug Enforcement Agency, told Bloomberg News. “You’re using something you have no idea what it is. It’s like Russian roulette.”

MAKING RAVES, EDM FESTIVALS SAFER

After word of Young’s death spread through the community, the Boise Police Department fielded a number of calls.

“They wanted to know what happened,” Officer Jermaine Galloway said.

Some who called were in the entertainment industry, including promoters, Galloway said. They wanted to know what more could be done to prevent such deaths.

Galloway said most promoters do a good job trying to keep venues drug-free. That can be challenging because concert-goers can show up to events after consuming drugs.

Security personnel at the doors of these events are responsible for turning away those who appear to be drunk or high.

“We are very concerned about people that party or take drugs before our concerts/events and have the best security and staffing available to help prevent any drug use at our shows,” said Creston Thornton, who was promoter of the traveling one-day Safe in Sound Festival that attracted about 4,000 people.

Thornton said it was his understanding that Young used drugs before or after attending the show at CenturyLink, but not at the arena. Police reports leave plenty of room for doubt about that.

Young’s friends told police she had consumed two or three rum and Cokes from a large bottle before the show and possibly a couple more at the venue, according to police reports. While at the show, Young told her friend that she had stuck her finger into a bag and consumed what was on her finger.

“After this, she noticed Esther was more out of it and seemed under the influence of something,” the report says. The friend also told police that Young took a Molly pill with her to the concert.

Investigators were not able to identify the person who provided drugs to Young. No one was charged in connection with her death.

A PUBLIC HEALTH ISSUE

A nonprofit group called DanceSafe, founded in 1998 and now based in Denver, aims to promote health and safety at rave events around the country. The group approaches drug use as a public health issue through peer education and outreach.

“We don’t condemn or condone. We’re not going to tell someone not to take a substance. It’s more about providing information. It’s acknowledging the fact that drug use occurs regardless of policies,” Executive Director Missi Woolridge said. “We’re talking about young people who use recreationally and are in that experimental phase. It’s important to talk about that and prevent medical emergencies.”

At some festivals, the group provides drug education, water, electrolytes — and even drug-testing kits. The $65 kits contain four reagents with 50 to 60 tests per bottle.

“Mostly when people come to us with a sample, it’s because they bought Molly and they want to know if it is MDMA or something else that could be potentially more harmful,” Woolridge said. “The biggest issue when we see medical emergencies is that it’s been highly cut, highly adulterated with something else.”

DanceSafe has 14 volunteer-run chapters around the country, including Portland and Seattle. It does not have an Idaho chapter. Thornton said drug test kits have not been distributed at events that he’s promoted locally.

“In our opinion,” he said, “this would be condoning drug use.”

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