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Drug Testing (A.k.a. Drug Checking)
Drug testing, sometimes called drug checking, is an essential harm reduction tactic to ensure that a substance is truly what you think it is, and not adulterated by potentially toxic chemicals that could cause an unpleasant, or even fatal, reaction. It’s of particular importance today, as new research chemicals are being developed rapidly and sold on the clearnet, as well as the dark web without much in the way of safety data or user trip reports; sometimes these unresearched compounds are sold as novel drugs, and sometimes they’re substituted for more well-known drugs, such as MDMA.
The best thing about drug checking is that you don’t need a whole chemistry lab to do it! In fact, you can test your drugs in the privacy of your own home with a drug checking kit such as the ones we love and trust for MDMA from nonprofit DanceSafe. Indeed, drug checking is easy, requiring only a few reagents (liquid testers) and some basic knowledge of how to work with them.
What is MDMA (a.k.a. molly)?
MDMA, also known as ecstasy, e, x, molly, or its chemical name 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, is one of the most popular recreational drugs in the world. Classified along with related compounds MDA, MDE, and MBDB as an empathogen (promoting feelings of empathy) or an entactogen (a Greek/Latin hybrid term meaning “touching within”), today, it’s a well-known fixture in the electronic dance music scene embraced for its euphoric effects and energizing boost to dancing and socializing. It’s also being studied for its numerous therapeutic potentials.
Read: MDMA: What is Molly?
MDMA became popular as a psychotherapeutic aid in the 1970s. Though it had been synthesized in 1912 by German pharmaceutical company Merck, most sources credit chemist Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin for giving new life to the formula, along with psychotherapist Leo Zeff for helping bring its psychotherapeutic properties to light. Because of MDMA’s particular euphoric, empathic, and psychedelic influence on the user, early proponents saw its promise in therapeutic settings for healing interpersonal relationships, treating trauma, and promoting personal and spiritual growth. In the 1970s and 1980s, recreational users caught word of MDMA’s many pleasant effects, and by 1985 it was listed in the U.S. as a Schedule I drug.
Today, research conducted by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is exploring MDMA’s role in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), putting MDMA on track to become a prescription medication approved by the FDA for its ability to help patients process and overcome adversities such as, “sexual assault, war, violent crime, and other traumas.” MAPS has also sponsored research investigating MDMA’s potential to help autistic adults with social anxiety, in addition to those diagnosed with eating disorders and life-threatening illnesses.
Additionally, because of its empathogenic effects and tendency to elicit emotional vulnerability, some MDMA advocates see the drug as a potential breakthrough treatment for couples in conflict. In the 1970s and early ‘80s—before MDMA was scheduled in the US—a few forward-thinking therapists were using it to assist couples in the context of relationship therapy.
Is Molly a Psychedelic?
While not a classic psychedelic like LSD or psilocybin, MDMA can be associated with certain psychedelic effects such as color enhancement, the appearance of tracers, and other mild hallucinatory experiences, and is therefore considered part of a broader class of psychedelic drugs. It also provokes psychedelic thought processes and a heart opening experience.
Effects of MDMA
MDMA causes neurons in the brain to release larger amounts of serotonin. It also causes the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, as well as oxytocin and prolactin hormones. This effect can lead to feelings of euphoria, greater openness to communicate, decreased fear, greater self-acceptance, increased connection to others, and feelings of love or empathy.
MDMA moreover decreases activity in the amygdala, which is responsible for a person’s fear responses and emotional attachment to memories. (As a note, episodic memories are primarily stored in the hippocampus. The amygdala’s function is to attach an emotional significance to memories, but does not itself necessarily store memories.) This effect, coupled with those listed above, is why MDMA has been so useful in treating PTSD, which the nonprofit MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) is currently investigating. In fact, MDMA for PTSD has been placed on the FDA fast track to become an approved medication in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy early this decade. MAPS is currently in the third and final phase of FDA-approved research.
On the physical side, MDMA may cause loss of appetite, jaw clenching, teeth grinding, shivering, feelings of restlessness, or even feelings of warmth. It’s important to note that, because of the large serotonin release enabled by MDMA, the drug should not be taken on a regular basis. The brain needs time to replenish serotonin stores, and frequent use of MDMA can potentially damage the necessary serotonin axons. Some people will experience depressive symptoms during the comedown period, for a few days after taking MDMA.
How Long Does Molly Last?
The total duration of MDMA is about three to six hours, with an initial onset of 20 to 40 minutes; typically, peak effects come on somewhere between the 60-minute and 90-minute mark.
Risks of MDMA
Because of its illegal and unregulated status, accessing adulterated or mislabeled MDMA is one of the biggest risks of use. That’s why drug checking, a.k.a. drug testing, is critical for a safer experience. Be aware, too, that MDMA’s current illegal status means that penalties for possession or sale may include prison time.
MDMA can increase the risk of heat stroke; taking frequent dance breaks and ensuring you’re cool and hydrated are good ways to stay safer. When taking MDMA, it’s very important to hydrate—but don’t overdo it. Consuming approximately two cups of water an hour is ideal while taking MDMA (or four cups in the case of strenuous activity like dancing). It’s also good to drink electrolyte-containing liquids as an addition to or alternative to water.
As mentioned above, some MDMA users also feel symptoms of depression for several days after taking the drug—an effect related to MDMA’s large release of serotonin in the brain. It takes time for serotonin levels to build up again; taking more MDMA to counteract the next-day effects isn’t recommended. Rather, general guidelines suggest limiting use to once every three to six months, with a maximum of once every six weeks. Likewise, mixing MDMA with other substances—such as alcohol or stimulants— should be avoided.
Is MDMA Addictive?
While MDMA isn’t physically addictive, frequent consumers may find that they increasingly seek out the drug’s effects with diminishing returns—indicating possible psychological dependence While tolerance is not an indication of psychological dependence (but rather a physical response), more frequent MDMA users may report a “loss of magic” after taking it many many times in high doses. Like many substances, MDMA works best and harms least when taken occasionally, not habitually.
What Does Molly Look Like?
MDMA often comes as a white or light brown crystalline powder, contained in a clear capsule. Sometimes it may come as light brown rocks. Other times, especially if you’re taking ecstasy (which may contain other components beyond MDMA), it comes as a pressed pill, which may come in a variety of colors and feature a design.
Why You Should Test Your Molly
According to Emanuel Sferios, founder of DanceSafe, MDMA prohibition has created “the most adulterated market in history.” Over the last few decades, hundreds of drugs have been sold as ecstasy or molly that contain little to no MDMA. Of the numerous counterfeit drugs DanceSafe has tested, dangerous cathinones (a.k.a. “bath salts”) and methamphetamine surface frequently. While these MDMA counterfeits may yield psychoactive effects, they might not feel as pleasurable or expected as those of MDMA. And, in the wrong doses, they could also be fatal.
Sferios was first introduced to MDMA as an informal therapy that helped him process difficult experiences from childhood. About a decade later, a friend brought MDMA back to his attention as a party drug—a use that resonated with Sferios, given its ability to boost energy, euphoria, and social connection. “I was blown away when I went to my first rave in Oakland—by how beautiful the culture was,” he tells DoubleBlind, citing the diverse demographics and peaceful vibe he found. By that time, MDMA had become the most sought-after rave drug and prohibition was well underway; the substance that Sferios had known to be both fun and therapeutic was being widely publicized as dangerous.
“No one is saying that MDMA use carries no risk,” Sferios says. Consumers of an unadulterated version of the drug can suffer adverse effects, and even die, if they take too large of a dose, or drink too much or too little water during the roll. But the risks grow when those who believe they’ve taken MDMA have actually taken meth, PMA, cathinones, or something else entirely. To be ultra-clear: It’s counterfeiting—which results from prohibition, and an unsupervised black market—that poses the biggest risk; in the right doses, and with a thoughtful set and setting, taking MDMA (a.k.a. rolling) is a fun, transcendent, and even therapeutic experience for many people.
Read: Set and Setting: Preparing Your Mind & Space For a Psychedelic Experience
The MDMA-associated deaths in the 90s and the subsequent media villainization of the drug prompted Sferios to found DanceSafe in 1998. The organization’s mission is to educate consumers of club drugs and to encourage and facilitate testing for risky counterfeits. Altogether, DanceSafe’s staff and hundreds of volunteers practice a philosophy known as harm reduction. It’s simple: to reduce the negative consequences associated with drug use and help consumers make safer, more informed decisions.
Molly Test Kit
Of the testing methods used by DanceSafe, one involves a machine employing infrared spectroscopy, which can yield detailed information about a molecule. DanceSafe has recently purchased a custom, top-of-the-line FTIR machine (which stands for Fourier-Transform Infrared Spectroscopy) for drug checking at events; if you see a DanceSafe booth at a festival, you can have a substance quickly checked at the booth utilizing FTIR.
The other testing method can be done at home by anyone. DanceSafe offers testing kits for MDMA—along with LSD and a number of other compounds—both online and at festivals. MDMA testing kits are meant to tell you whether the primary ingredient is what you intended to consume.
Testing is critical, says Sferios, because you can’t reliably identify MDMA by look, smell, or taste.
MDMA testing at a glance:
- It’s unclear what percentage of drugs sold as MDMA today are authentic
- Risks of consuming counterfeits include hypertension, elevated temperature, difficulty breathing, and death
- Most counterfeits don’t contain any MDMA
- Cathinones (amphetamine-like stimulants also known as “bath salts”) are a common MDMA counterfeit; in the last year, the cathinones market, according to DanceSafe director Mitchell Gomez, “has continued to explode”
- Other common MDMA counterfeits include cocaine and methamphetamine; in Europe, PMA and PMMA (two compounds producing similar effects to MDMA but with more toxicity) are more common
- Fentanyl, the dangerous synthetic opioid, has cropped up on the MDMA market; DanceSafe’s MDMA kits contain one free fentanyl test strip, and additional strips can be purchased separately
- MDMA test kits include three reagents, or liquids that turn color in the presence of particular chemicals: Marquis, Simons, and Froehde
- Used together, these reagents can reliably rule out most misrepresentations of MDMA—though they can’t indicate absolute purity (see the accompanying how-to video)
- Follow all steps in the kit when testing at home, read the testing kit instructions in advance, and be sure you’re sober when you test
- If you come across MDMA with a score mark (as if it were meant to be cut in half), it’s likely a double dose of MDMA of European origin; in that case, practice extra caution with dosing
The Psychedelic Renaissance and Drug Testing
There are many likely reasons for the comeback of psychedelics and related compounds. For some, they help us be or discover better or more evolved versions of ourselves, helping us bond with loved ones, nature, and our own inner selves. They also help quench the yearning many of us have to understand the self in relation to the whole—to see past artifice and step into another way of being. Because of psychedelics’ potential therapeutic uses for PTSD in particular, Sferios theorizes that the current psychedelic renaissance is a means of collective healing from 9/11. Today, in the long-term aftermath of the Covid crisis, we may see even more relevance for the therapeutic uses of psychedelics.
But, as long as prohibition endures, the counterfeiting problem will remain. “The more successful the Drug War is at cracking down on real MDMA [and other drugs],” said Sferios, “the more motivation there’ll be for developing and selling counterfeits.”
DanceSafe is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that promotes harm reduction with regard to health and safety within the nightlife, electronic music, and psychedelic community. Based upon principles of peer-based education, DanceSafe brings accurate, truthful information to people about the safety of certain drugs that are popular in the club scene, and how to use them for the best possible experience, and without harm. For more information on drug checking kits, different kinds of substances, and other safety information, visit their website here. DanceSafe is currently working under a grant to write legislation legalizing all drug checking materials and removing the language for paraphernalia. If you’re a lawyer or lobbyist interested in this issue, contact DanceSafe.