The choice above isn’t an imaginary one. In January 2015, four people in the UK died after taking red pills bearing the Superman “S” logo, believing they contained MDMA (the “hug drug”), when in fact they contained PMMA (“Dr. Death”). Other pills, also branded with the Superman logo and available at the same time as those containing PMMA, did in fact contain the comparatively much safer MDMA. This is the dilemma faced by every person who uses ecstasy (and its supposedly purer equivalent, “Molly”) whenever they consider taking the drug, because very rarely, if ever, can they know for sure what the pill, powder, or capsule actually contains and what effects it will have on their body once swallowed.
To find out what ecstasy and Molly really contain, we analyzed 27,000 test reports from five different countries, made over a 10 year period.
There are a few basic things you should know about ecstasy. The first is that the vast majority of the time, when people talk about ecstasy, they’re really talking about its active ingredient: MDMA. It’s MDMA that makes people feel happy, alert, energized, and ecstatic. There’s also Molly, ecstasy’s supposedly cleaner cousin. Molly, especially in powder form, has a reputation for being pure MDMA, which – unlike an ecstasy pill – contains no adulterants.
In reality, neither ecstasy nor Molly are guaranteed to be pure, or even contain any MDMA at all, because drug makers and dealers frequently include other substances in ecstasy pills, capsules, and powders to maximize their profits. They don’t, contrary to urban myths, put glass or brick dust in their products, as it simply wouldn’t be good for business. What they do instead is include substances that mimic the effects of MDMA, some more closely than others. The challenge for someone who wants to take ecstasy is making sure their pill or powder does in fact contain mostly MDMA (which is as pure as possible), and not another active ingredient that could at best spoil their evening by not giving them the experience they desire, and at worst land them in hospital. This is where pill reports come in.
Identifying Ecstasy Pills
Despite what some people think, you cannot tell what a pill, capsule, or powder contains simply by looking at it.
It shows 300 pills and capsules that contained only MDMA next to 300 pills sold as “ecstasy” that contained no MDMA at all. Nothing about the size, shape, or color of the pills on the far right betrays the fact that they did not contain MDMA – to know that, you would have to test them.
Several organizations maintain databases of ecstasy test reports. Their goal is to reduce the potential harm of bad “ecstasy” by scientifically testing various samples and publishing their actual ingredients alongside descriptions and photos. This way, users can refer to the reports to get some idea of what they are about to consume and therefore what it will probably do to them.
EcstasyData.org is an “independent laboratory pill testing program” launched in 2001. It tests several hundred “ecstasy” samples each year using the very accurate gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC/MS) method and less accurate, but still very useful, “reagents.” Reagents are chemical solutions that turn different colors when a drug sample is dissolved in them; then these can be compared to charts to gauge which active ingredients the sample probably contains.
For example, if the solution turns black, the sample probably contains an ecstasy-like substance (such as MDMA, MDE, or MDA). If it turns bright orange, it probably contains speed (methamphetamine or amphetamine).
There are dozens of different possible reactions (fizzes, multiple colors, varying reaction speeds, etc.), and each must be carefully monitored to get an idea of whether a sample should actually be called “ecstasy” or “Molly,” or if it is what a seasoned pill popper would call “bunk.” We downloaded all 3,400 reports held by EcstasyData.org to include in our analysis.
PillReports.net is another database of ecstasy pill reports, but unlike those found at EcstasyData.org, they are created by the people who buy and consume ecstasy pills. Some reviewers consume their pills and base their reports on what effects they produce. Others test their pills using the same kits described above and publish the results. And many reviewers do both: chemically test pills, consume, and subjectively experience them, and then use an average of the two methods to say what they believe the pill contains and whether or not it deserves a warning. On PillReports.net, a site that focuses on ecstasy, a pill receives a warning if it does not contain what buyers expect. For example, if it contains speed and not MDMA, it will receive a warning, even if the speed is “good speed.” Generally speaking, it won’t receive a warning if it contains only an ecstasy-like substance, such as MDMA, MDA, or MDE.
We downloaded every pill report from PillReports.net for Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Australia, and the Netherlands – 23,500 in total (70% of the entire database), spanning 10 years. Then, altogether, we had nearly 27,000 pill reports from EcstasyData.org and PillReports.net, created by laboratories and ecstasy users who employed a variety of testing methods, including consumption, testing kits, and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. We were ready to find out what ecstasy really contains.
The 23,500 reports we downloaded and analyzed from PillReports.net spanned 2005 to 2015. The overview above summarizes reports made in roughly the last five years (2010 to 2014). We will include older reports a little later when we look at the pills’ contents (typically using data from 2006 onward, as we noticed some anomalies in 2005).
Australian and British reports are largely conducted in the same way: 44–47% of users base their reports only on consuming the pill and considering its effects; 25–27% base their reports only on home testing kits; and 28–29% consume and chemically test pills before compiling their reports. American users are a bit different. More American users (56%) only consume pills for their reports. And Canadian users are the most different group of them all. A massive 78% of Canadian reports are based solely on the consumption of the pills. Only 10% use testing kits without consuming the pills too.
These geographical differences in how users test their pills presumably go some way to explaining why the percentages of pills from each country with warnings differ so much. Again, Britain and Australia are fairly similar: 28% and 33% of their respective reports between 2010 and 2014 were given warnings to highlight the fact that the pills did not contain “MDxx” (MDMA or a very similar substance). America had more (41%). Canada had the most by some margin (73%), and the Netherlands had the fewest (11%).
Before we conclude that Canadians are more reckless than the other groups, because nearly eight out of 10 of their reports are based solely on consumption, or that Canadian ecstasy is considerably more adulterated than ecstasy from the U.S., Britain, Australia, and the Netherlands, let’s examine pill warnings over the last decade for each country. Perhaps Canada just had one very bad recent year, or the Netherlands a couple of very good ones.
Ecstasy pills from the Netherlands have consistently been given warnings less often since 2006 than those from any of the other four countries. Canadian ecstasy pills, on the other hand, have consistently received the most warnings. That is, they have been deemed by the people who bought them – based on either a chemical test, consumption, or both – to not be an unadulterated pill containing only an ecstasylike active ingredient. What’s more, since 2011, warnings on Canadian pill reports have rocketed far beyond any of the other four countries.
Perhaps consuming a pill makes it easier to judge if it is adulterated, and given that Canadian reviewers consume the large majority of the pills they review, they catch the most adulterated ones. If this were true, reports that included only pills which were tested without consumption should have a very different warning rate than the alternative testing method. But in fact, they don’t.
Reports from the U.S. show a similar relationship: 44% that were only consumed were given warnings, compared to 41% that were only tested with a kit. Something else is therefore responsible for Canadian pills’ high rate of warnings and the Netherlands’ much lower rate (82.6% versus 6.2% in 2014). It is presumably the contents of the pills.
The Contents of 23,500 “Ecstasy” Pills (PillReports.net, 2006-2014)
When a report is created for an ecstasy pill on PillReports.net, the user is given a list of about 30 substances and substance combinations to choose from. Then the user decides which suspected substance to label a pill with based on the effects the pill had on him or her after consumption or the results of using a home testing kit – or both. If the reviewer (or a moderator of the database) feels that there is insufficient evidence to accurately determine the contents of a pill, its substance is labeled “Unknown.”
The table above reveals a lot about what ecstasy pills really contain and how their contents can differ wildly by country. While there are lots of exotic-sounding chemicals in the table above, the most important to consider are MDMA, MDxx, amphetamine, and piperazine. MDxx, being any substance that is structurally very similar to MDMA, can almost be grouped together with MDMA. MDxx/MDMA is what the average ecstasy/Molly user wants his or her pill or powder to contain. 53% of the pills on PillReports.net between 2006 and 2014 contained only MDMA/MDxx. For Dutch pills only, however, this figure was much higher: 70.5%. Canadian pills contained MDMA/MDxx the least often: 33.1%. U.S. pills were in the middle, at 54%.
The reason pills from Canada on average had far less MDMA in them appears to be because they so often contained speed (amphetamine). 18.4% of Canadian pills contained only speed, compared to 2.5% of U.S. pills, 3.2% of Australian, 2.0% of British, and 1.1% of Dutch. We can see this more clearly demonstrated in the two graphs below. The one on the left shows MDMA/MDxx contents by country over time, while the one on the right shows amphetamine.
Ecstasy pills from the Netherlands have, since 2006, consistently contained only MDMA/MDxx more often than any of the other four countries. Pills from Canada have consistently contained MDMA/MDxx the least. In fact, the graph above left shows how, after 2009, MDMA/MDxx in Canadian pills dropped significantly, while (as shown on the graph above right), amphetamine content rocketed. The other countries have for the most part been more consistent in both regards, although the U.K. has seen MDMA/MDxx increase a lot since 2010. The dip and rise of the U.S. lines on both graphs around 2012 are clear illustrations of how when MDMA/MDxx content drops, it is replaced by an adulterant like amphetamine.
Let’s zoom out again now and see how the substances found in ecstasy have changed over time for the five countries combined.
Most ecstasy pills do contain the substance that gives ecstasy its name: MDMA, or a substance similar enough in structure that it might as well be MDMA. But pills also frequently contain speed, which doesn’t mimic MDMA’s empathogenic quality and carries with it its own health risks, especially when consumed alongside other active ingredients. There are also a lot of pills with contents that cannot be determined by PillReport.net’s users, despite their extensive first-hand knowledge and home testing kits. This is because home testing kits can only tell you so much about a pill’s contents. If you want to know exactly what it contains, with no ifs, ands, or buts, you have to analyze it using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. This is the technique used by EcstasyData.org, our second data set. Let’s take a look at what its reports reveal.
EcstasyData.org’s reports, although fewer in number than PillReports.net’s, are far more accurate in pinpointing which active ingredients ecstasy samples contain. We can see, for example, that the most common substance for ecstasy to be cut with is actually caffeine – an ingredient never mentioned at PillReports.net, probably because it’s of little consequence to users and also practically impossible to qualitatively detect. The four tables above break down pill reports by how many active ingredients were found in samples. The leftmost table includes all pills and shows that one third of those tested contained only MDMA as their active substance. This is exactly the same proportion as revealed by PillReports.net’s data (2006–2014, all five countries).
Of pills with only one active ingredient, 61.3% contained MDMA. Of pills with two active ingredients, methamphetamine was found in 7.6%. The graph to the left shows how many active ingredients are typically found in ecstasy samples. About half (54.7%) only contain one active ingredient. Four in every 100 samples tested didn’t contain MDMA or any other active ingredient – they were just sugar, baking powder, or some other inert substance.
Because EcstasyData.org can determine how many active ingredients a sample contains with far more accuracy than PillReports.net, it’s possible to see whether Molly deserves its reputation for being pure MDMA, unadulterated by other substances.
There are a few ways to isolate Molly reports. One is to count only samples that had “Molly” in their names. Of 143 that did, only 27.3% contained “pure” MDMA. 16.1% contained methylone, a substance that has a similar potency to MDMA, but not the same euphoric effects. Another way to isolate Molly reports is to only look at powders. Many drug users believe that powders are the “pure” drug, before it’s been mixed with adulterants and pressed into a pill. Of 71 powder samples, 36.6% contained only MDMA. 8.5% contained MDMA and a substance called MSM, which is used to fake the appearance of the crystals you find in pure MDMA. The last way is to look at only capsules, which are effectively the same as powders but in capsule form. 39.4% of 193 capsules contained only MDMA. 10.4% contained methylone, and 3.6% contained MDMA and MSM.
Based on EcstasyData.org’s tests, Molly doesn’t contain any more MDMA or any fewer adulterants than regular ecstasy pills. In fact, a strong argument exists against the reliability of Molly powder, which is that powder can easily be cut by anyone with almost anything. A pressed pill, on the other hand, cannot be changed once it is made. Therefore, a pill can be traced and, through the use of databases like PillReports. net and EcstasyData.org, be fairly reliably known to contain MDMA or undesirable alternatives.
Ecstasy Pills that Kill
We’ve so far seen that most adulterated ecstasy pills and powders contain caffeine, speed, and piperazine. But these substances aren’t usually the ones you see in news reports of “ecstasy deaths.” Most people who die when they take ecstasy have unknowingly consumed a rarer but potentially more toxic chemical: PMA (or PMMA) – a.k.a. Dr. Death.
At low doses, PMA can loosely mimic the effects of MDMA, especially to users who haven’t taken MDMA many times before. However, PMA taken at higher doses can easily raise a person’s body temperature and heart rate to lethal levels. PMA takes longer to take effect than MDMA too, which means that users will sometimes pop one pill, not feel the effects after half an hour, and then pop another. This “double dosing” of PMA is what can kill users – or at least take them to brink of total collapse.
Not many pill reports on either site we looked at contained PMA (three out of 3,400 on PillReports.net and about 100 out of 23,500 on EcstasyData.org), but when you extrapolate those numbers to the millions of pills “in the wild,” the situation becomes more alarming. Ecstasy users on PillReports.net are aware of the dangers too. We scraped every comment from all 23,500 reports and counted the number of mentions of “PMA.”
Mentions of PMA in ecstasy pill report comments from PillReports.net have increased in recent years for the Netherlands and Australia, and the U.K. saw significant increases from 2012 to 2013, probably as a result of batches of PMA pills flooding the market. The U.S. has remained steady and relatively low for the entire nine years.
There are other things that can be learned about ecstasy users from the comments they leave on pill reports. One is when they take pills. Most consumption-based reports on PillReports.net include descriptions of what the experience of taking the pill was like, often with timelines of when the effects set in and what they felt like. We extracted the first time code (e.g. “Took the first pill at 1a.m.”) from 2,221 reports to get a fairly accurate idea of when users first swallowed their pills. We also ran a word frequency check on the same experience descriptions to see which types of feelings and reactions were most common.
Given that MDMA typically takes about 40 minutes to kick in and its effects are best appreciated during nights out, it makes sense that most users consume ecstasy pills in the late evening (58% of reviewers on PillReports.net took their first pill between 9 p.m. and midnight). The most used words in users’ reports are possibly more enlightening than the times. They talk of “rolling” (the experience of being on MDMA); “sleep”; “friends”; “dancing”; their “eyes wiggling”; “jaws clenching”; feeling “happy,” “intense,” and “tired.”
Ecstasy users publish reports on pills using the same level of analytical precision employed by wine connoisseurs when they describe the bouquet of a new and as-yet unproven bottle. They say if the pill is hard or crumbly, bitter, or tasteless. And, as every wine has a distinct “mouthfeel,” every ecstasy pill has its own cerebral and physiological effects. Some feel “speedier” than others. Certain pills produce nasty hangovers, while others don’t. Most make people feel happy. A very, very small number of people die because of them. And it’s all because of what they contain… the MDMA, the adulterants, and at what purities and ratios they’re combined.
By analyzing thousands of pill reports, we now know that most ecstasy pills – or at least those that people bother to test and tell other drug users about – do contain MDMA or an MDMA-like substance. But how much MDMA is in any given pill, and whether it’s mixed with speed (as it very often will be), is down to chance and possibly where you live. Canadian pills almost always seem to contain some speed, whereas those from the Netherlands, where pill testing is much more common than any of the other four countries we looked at, are much more likely to contain just MDMA.
We’ve also seen that Molly, the apparently pure form of MDMA mentioned by Madonna and Miley, is typically anything but pure. It’s no more likely to be pure MDMA than an ecstasy pill selected at random.
Betting on the purity of any illicit street drug is ultimately a losing proposition. Furthermore, subjectively testing out the composition of any illicit pill on oneself can be a very dangerous game, with potentially risky health consequences. It’s unrealistic, if not impossible, to envision a scenario involving substance use and abuse if one’s long-term goal is to be happy and healthy. If you’re concerned that the frequent use of ecstasy or other drugs has begun to negatively impact your life, or has resulted in a difficult-to-break cycle of dependency, help is available.