Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past month, you’ve heard Miley Cyrus’ hit song “We Can’t Stop,” and — by the transitive property — if you’ve heard said song, then you’ve also heard the infamous line: “… dancing with molly.”

Illustration by Megan Mulholland
Illustration by Megan Mulholland
Illustration by Megan Mulholland
Illustration by Megan Mulholland

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Cyrus isn’t singing about dancing with the American Girl doll or actress Molly Ringwald of “Sixteen Candles” and Brat Pack fame. No, she is, of course, singing about the illegal amphetamine drug known on the streets as Molly, or in its purer forms, as MDMA or Ecstasy.

Over the past two months, Molly was cited for causing multiple deaths, bringing the party drug into the mainstream news. Olivia Rotondo, a 20-year-old University of New Hampshire student, died at the Electric Zoo music festival in New York after uttering, “I just took six hits of Molly,” according to The Daily Mail, causing the festival to cancel its final day. The major chemical used to make MDMA comes from sassafras trees, the same plant that gives us the harmless American classic — root beer. However, Molly cannot be given the same “harmless” moniker.

Molly is a happy drug, a drug that causes the user feelings of euphoria. It does this through altering brain chemistry and increasing the amount of serotonin present to interact with serotonin receptors.

Neurotransmitters are released from neurons and cause cascading effects throughout the body, resulting in symptoms like muscle contraction or hormone releases. When a neurotransmitter, like serotonin, is released from a neuron, it exists in the space between the releasing neuron and the receiving neuron as it searches for the receptors that will allow it to cause a specific effect. After interacting with the receptors, it is removed to avoid an overwhelming and exaggerated response. Transporters work to collect the neurotransmitter and move it back into the releasing neuron, eliminating it from the space where it could cause a cascade.

MDMA, Molly, Ecstasy — whatever you want to call it — binds to the transporters so serotonin interacts with receptors for a relatively long time, causing an unnatural response. Because serotonin influences some emotional pathways — such as those controlling empathy and happiness — users experience a heightened sense of euphoria, among other effects. But Molly can change the brain chemistry to a point that can make it impossible to return to a normal level of happiness through sensitization of the receptors — when the receptors no longer cause their expected response due to repeated and long-term exposure to serotonin — making the drug highly addictive.

This can cause more issues, since unnatural amounts of a brain chemical isn’t going to be harmless. Serotonion syndrome can result from having too much serotonin activity, and taking too much Molly, as reported in the news lately, can be fatal. Because the neurotransmitter is involved in many different physiological pathways, when it causes problems in those pathways the body can lose control. Unfortunately the symptoms — such as kidney failure, high blood pressure and seizures — can have a quick onset, making it difficult if the situation is life threatening to have adequate medical treatment.

The practice of cutting drugs with other drugs also makes Molly risky. MDMA is frequently cut with another stimulant, methylone, and sold also as Molly. Mixing drugs compounds the likelihood of detrimental effects. Though Miley makes Molly sound harmless, perhaps Miley will be dancing with a hospital stay instead of those apathetic looking teddy bears next time she parties with Molly.

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