By Jackie Hong
Marijuana’s not badass anymore.
The days where smoking a joint or hitting a bong made you a hardcore delinquent have vapourized into thin air — with the green stuff legal in two U.S. states (Colorado and Washington) and all of Uruguay, and Justin Trudeau here in Canada riding legalization as one of his election platforms, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone, especially amongst a university-age group, who thinks marijuana is a “hard” drug anymore. In fact, a 2013 study of 1,200 University of Toronto undergraduate students “suggests that marijuana use is normalized or integrated into conventional university student life.”
The destigmatization of the most popular substance next to alcohol and cigarettes means there’s an opening for the next up-and-coming drug to fill.
Garrett*, a Toronto-based drug dealer who’s been active since April, said the drug first hit its stride in the rave scene.
“It was unheard of outside of raves a few years ago, but now, it’s everywhere,” he said. “It started getting big about five to seven years ago, just as EDM [electronic dance music] was starting to get popular.”
EDM, once considered a niche music genre, has broken into the mainstream. Big names like Skrillex, Swedish House Mafia and deadmau5 regularly get radio play, while festivals like VELD and Digital Dreams, both held in Toronto during the summer, sell out in days. With the music came the culture — furry leg warmers and vests, plastic-bead bracelets, neon-coloured clothes and, of course, drugs.
“Honestly, I’d probably have never tried it if my friends didn’t get me into the EDM scene,” Josh*, 26, said. Josh first used MDMA at an EDM show about a year-and-a-half-ago, and has tried it at concerts since.
“K [ketamine]’s huge too, always has been, but nowhere near MDMA,” Josh said.
It’s not just the electronica acts that are bringing MDMA, commonly known as Molly, to the masses anymore.“All Gold Everything” by rapper Trinidad James features the line “Popped a molly/I’m sweating.” MDMA can impair the body’s ability to regulate its temperature, and combined with the dancing that comes with raves and clubs, can cause users to sweat excessively.
Even pop queen Madonna got in on the trend — she released an album named MDNA in March 2012, and reportedly asked her audiences “Have you seen molly?” during her tour.
MDMA, short for 3,4 methylenedioxymethamphetamine and also known as “M” or “Molly,” is usually found in gelatin capsules. An average capsule contains around 100 to 120 mg of pure MDMA, enough for one dose for the average person. MDMA is the actual chemical that gets a person high, but is also used when referring to capsules with a higher purity of the drug. Ecstasy, occasionally called “E” or “X,” may also contain MDMA, but the colourful tablets usually contain lower dosages of the chemical, more fillers, and potentially, other drugs.
It takes about 20 minutes after you take a pill of MDMA for its effects to fully hit you but when they do, you’ll be high for the next four to six hours. It stimulates neurotransmitters in the brain — most importantly, serotonin and dopamine, the “feel-good” chemical.
In smaller doses, MDMA causes the user to feel euphoric and can cause increased affection. But in high doses the drug can cause mild hallucinogenic effects, like causing faint halos to appear around objects.
“It’s kind of like alcohol in a sense that you take it and you go right to a party and you’re guaranteed to have a good time,” fourth-year Ryerson student Chris* said. Chris, 21, has sampled a variety of hallucinogens, stimulants and smokes marijuana regularly, but said his favourite high is when he’s on MDMA. He personally doesn’t like clubs, but sometimes takes it when going out with friends or to a party.
“For university students? I’d say after marijuana, [the next most popular drug]’s definitely MDMA,” Chris said. “[Cocaine] is also a common one, but coke is also very expensive and students… don’t have the money to buy that stuff.”
MDMA typically costs $10 a pill. Just like alcohol, the price goes up inside a venue like a bar or club to around $15 or $20 a pill. But that’s still cheaper than cocaine, which in Toronto, has a price range of $80 to $100 a gram and is harder to find. There’s also a “100 per cent guarantee” of being able to find someone selling MDMA in a club or busy bar downtown, Chris said.
“I don’t have any contacts right now,” Chris said, “but if I really wanted to, I could probably get some in a day.”
It’s not only users that have an easy time seeking out MDMA, even though in Canada, it’s a Schedule I drug (the same category as heroin) — being found in possession of it can mean up to seven years’ jail time, and producing or trafficking it can result in life in prison.
Garrett said getting a stock is as simple as ordering it off a supplier online.
“It’s surprisingly easy to get your hands on. If you buy it in a research format … It’s technically legal,” Garrett said. “Just not for human consumption.”
Supply companies, often in China or India, according to Garrett, will synthesize MDMA for use in clinical trials.
Garrett said he only buys from these companies and not “locally-sourced” product because he doesn’t trust the purity of Toronto’s supply.
“I’m sure some of it is fine, but I don’t want to take that risk,” Garrett said.
Ryerson organic chemistry professor Bryan Koivisto explained that safrol, a natural pesticide found in nutmeg, can be used as a “core” to synthesize MDMA, but, it and other chemicals needed to convert it into the drug, are highly regulated by the government. However, he doesn’t think that MDMA can be cooked using “kitchen methods” or if pure product could be synthesized by someone without proper training in chemistry.
“Safrol used to be what they used to flavour root beer until they realized it was carcinogenic,” Koivisto said. “So if someone ever tasted root beer when they were consuming MDMA… I just wonder if that would still be in there somehow because they didn’t fully transform it.
“[MDMA] was actually tested as drug for narcolepsy,” Koivisto added. “You can’t get addicted to it chemically, but you can get addicted to the effect.”
Even with its sudden spike in popularity, Josh said that he doesn’t think MDMA will ever be as normalized as marijuana.
“It’s a little limited to culture,” he said. “I wouldn’t do it at a punk show.”
Another limiting factor of MDMA is the fact that it makes the user’s pupils dilate. This means that bright lights can become painful and blinding to look at, which is why it’s used more often at night.
Chris felt the same about MDMA’s future, but for a different reason — it can give you one hell of a hangover. Unlike other drugs, which introduce a chemical into a body’s system to give the user a high, MDMA makes the body use its own resources to produce the high. It depletes a user’s serotonin levels to the point where the body faces a shortage and needs to replenish the supply. It could take anywhere from a day to two weeks to get serotonin levels back to normal, meanwhile leaving the person feeling terrible. This is also the reason why frequently taking MDMA without “time off” negates the effect of the drug — eventually, your body runs out of serotonin.
“I always make sure to do it on a Friday or Saturday so I have the next day to recover,” Chris said. “I don’t really see it as something someone could do every day.”
Amid all this drug talk, it’s important to note that drug use among youth has actually been on the decline — in fact, it wasn’t even that high to start with. According to the results from the Canadian Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey 2011, 21.6 per cent of Canadians aged 15 to 24 reported marijuana use in 2011, down from 37 per cent in 2004.
Illicit drugs, defined as cocaine or crack, speed, hallucinogens excluding salvia, ecstasy and heroin, are used far less often by the same age group and have also seen declining use, dropping to 4.8 per cent in 2011 from 11.3 per cent in 2004. Alcohol is, by far, the most popular substance of choice, but even that’s seeing a drop in users: fewer than three-quarters of youth reported drinking sometime in 2011, compared to more than 80 per cent in 2004.
“I think because a lot of people know it by name now, they assume a lot more people are doing it,” Garrett said, adding that drug culture can vary from city to city. However, he said, even though MDMA is seeing a surge in popularity, it still has a long way to go before it can claim the same status that marijuana, his main source of income, carries now.
“Weed and alcohol are by far the most popular substances out there,” he said. “MDMA’s out there, [but] it doesn’t even come close.”
*Names have been changed for obvious reasons. Illicit drugs, man.