Many of the 300,000 people who went to Ultra Music Festival in Miami this past March were surprised to learn that the event was celebrating its 15th anniversary. The festival, after all, has only existed in its current form since 2011, when, after a decade of relative obscurity and gradual linear growth, it purportedly had an audience of 150,000: 50 percent larger and, with the addition of a third day of music, 50 percent longer than the year before. The lineup that year was topped by Guetta and Deadmau5, both of whom had enjoyed recent radio success. The end of March overlapped with high school and college spring breaks across the country, and it was cheaper and quicker to get to Miami than, say, Cancun.
Seemingly overnight, Miami had become for dance music what Atlanta and New Orleans had been for hip-hop: the epicenter of one of the biggest genres in the country, with all the accompanying shenanigans and vices. Miami Music Week began with the Winter Music Conference—a semi-exclusive EDM marketing event that operates as the scene’s old boy’s club—and ended with Ultra, when the exodus of young Americans to south Florida brought curiosity to its boiling point: There was the neon, the dancing, the love, of course the music, and there were also the drugs.
Even if you weren't rolling by this point, you’d have a hard time neglecting its omnipresence in the scene. The idea of using MDMA had become a key commodity for the electronic music industry. Some of the biggest pop artists of the last decade have clumsily but enthusiastically embraced the new genre, making overt references to Molly in their lyrics. In consequence, MDMA is now to EDM what Ciroc and fat blunts were to mid-2000 rap: substances whose implications paint a picture of the scene.
Over the last seven months, a photo of some powder-filled capsules has received more than 212,000 shares on Facebook. The photo, its caption said, was of MDMA, and was “made up of cocaine, crack, ecstasy & bath salt.”
We could laugh if what the poster of that photo was doing wasn't so dangerous: giving credence to the spectrum of myths about MDMA, which range from circumstantially sort of accurate to offensively wrong. Non-users, almost as a rule, seem to have no idea what it is.
The numerous names for the drug—MDMA, Ecstasy, Molly, etc.—fuel misconceptions by implying various degrees of purity and risk. This confusion, Dr. John H. Halpern told me, is little more than a “marketing gimmick.”
“Molly is short for ‘molecule,’ and is just a new slang name that connotes that it’s the ‘real’ thing,” he said. “Why? Because it hasn't been tabletized or put into a capsule. From an illicit manufacturer’s standpoint, that just saves them another step. They can also sell it for more and claim that it’s pure.”
Halpern is an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and the director of the Laboratory for Integrative Psychiatry at Boston’s McLean Hospital, where he stands at the forefront of the country’s medical research in psychedelics. He spoke to me from Chicago, where he was attending the Clusterbusters Conference, an annual conversation about the potential hallucinogenic substances have to cure crippling headaches.