Molly is known as the drug of laser-washed rave tents, a euphoria-producing chemical ideal for loud music and wild nights. But when Alex Place took a form of the drug in February, he was just hanging out with buddies in a Streamwood, Ill., house, watching movies and texting his girlfriend.
Place, 23, an aspiring restaurateur, had a rough time that night, throwing up continually, his friends later told police. He fell unconscious in the morning and an hour later was pronounced dead, felled by a combination of the drug and a heart condition he never realized he had.
Surveys have noted a steep recent decline in the portion of young people who see great risk in MDMA, the proper name of molly and its chemical twin, ecstasy. But that is a dangerous misconception. In the Chicago area, MDMA, usually mixed with other drugs, has been linked to 10 deaths since 2009. Experts say that despite rumors of increased purity, the drug continues to be mixed with toxic adulterants.
"People think there are chemists in white jackets in a sterile lab producing this," said John Riley of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Chicago division, whose agents have found rat poison and pesticide in MDMA. "Nothing could be further from the truth."
MDMA is an amphetamine, and like other forms of the drug it raises a user's body temperature. But Dr. Patricia Lee, chair of emergency medicine at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center on Chicago's North Side, said that's just one of the problems doctors see with MDMA overdoses.
Users come in with high blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, vomiting, seizures, agitation and signs of psychosis, she said. Doctors treat whatever organ system is under stress, but there is no antidote to reverse the drug's effects.
It's unclear how often MDMA use results in death across the country — federal agencies don't keep that statistic — but experts say it is relatively rare.
Dr. Una McCann, a Johns Hopkins psychiatry professor who studies MDMA's toxic effects, said the problem isn't so much the drug as the behavior it provokes. People who take MDMA and dance at sweaty, crowded nightclubs or festivals often overheat, which is dangerous enough: Two young people who died at the Electric Zoo music event in New York over the Labor Day weekend had fatally high body temperatures, according to the New York City medical examiner.
But another hazard comes when people try to compensate for their spiking temperatures by drinking copious amounts of water, McCann said. That can lead to hyponatremia, or a lowering of the blood's sodium level, a potentially lethal condition. "The brain swells up and there can be total body organ failure," she said.
Most of the Chicago-area deaths were complicated by the presence of potentially fatal substances such as heroin, cocaine and prescription drugs. In the case of Alex Place, an undiagnosed medical condition played a tragic role.
An autopsy discovered that Place had an enlarged heart, something Place hadn't known about, his family said. That and MDMA intoxication were ruled to be the causes of his death.
Place's death plunged his family and friends into a misery that has yet to recede. His sister said his absence makes "pieces of my heart feel like (they're) rotting." His mother, Krista Place, said that despite leaning hard on her faith, she still feels numb and uprooted.
"It's different now," she said. "I'm not the same. You don't think about that when you take a hit of (MDMA). What is it going to do to your family if you do die?"