Pubdate: Fri, 01 Nov 2013
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2013 Chicago Tribune Company
Author: John Keilman


Officials: It's Not Pure or Safe, and ER Visits Rising

Molly is known as the drug of laser-washed rave tents, a 
euphoria-producing chemical ideal for loud music and wild nights. But 
when Alex Place took a form of the drug in February, he was just 
hanging out with buddies in a Streamwood house, watching movies and 
texting his girlfriend.

Place, 23, an aspiring restaurateur from Kenosha, had a rough time 
that night, throwing up continually, his friends told police. He fell 
unconscious in the morning and an hour later was pronounced dead, 
felled by a combination of the drug and a heart condition he never 
realized he had.

Surveys of teen drug use have noted a steep recent decline in the 
portion of young people who see great risk in MDMA, the formal name 
of molly and its chemical twin, Ecstasy. But that is a dangerous 
misconception. The Tribune has found that MDMA, usually mixed with 
other drugs, has been linked to 10 deaths in the Chicago area since 
2009. Experts say that despite rumors of increased purity, the drug 
continues to be mixed with toxic adulterants.

"People think there are chemists in white jackets in a sterile lab 
producing this," said John Riley of the Drug Enforcement 
Administration's Chicago division, whose agents have found rat poison 
and pesticide in MDMA they've taken off the street. "Nothing could be 
further from the truth."

Even so, the drug is having a cultural moment, getting name-checked 
by singers from Rihanna to Miley Cyrus and becoming a staple of the 
booming electronic dance music scene. Some of the area's biggest 
concerts have been plagued by dealers, including one man who was 
arrested after allegedly touting his wares at Lollapalooza, shouting, 
"Who wants molly?"

The drug's popularity is holding steady among young people - the 
latest Illinois Youth Survey says 5 percent of high school seniors 
took it at least once the previous year - even as Chicago-area 
emergency room visits associated with MDMA have risen sharply, 
totaling more than 1,000 in 2011.

MDMA is an amphetamine, and like other forms of the drug it raises a 
user's body temperature. But Dr. Patricia Lee, chair of emergency 
medicine at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center on Chicago's 
North Side, said that's just one of the problems doctors see with 
MDMA overdoses.

Users come in with high blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, vomiting, 
seizures, agitation and signs of psychosis, she said. Doctors treat 
whatever organ system is under stress, but there is no antidote to 
reverse the drug's effects.

MDMA's addictive potential is a matter of debate. Craig Riehle, who 
oversees intake at the Rosecrance treatment center in Rockford, said 
the teens he sees tend to use MDMA as a social drug, but they come to 
rehab primarily because of other substances - everything from alcohol 
to marijuana to heroin.

That doesn't mean that regular MDMA use is free of consequences.

"It can create, for some, a kind of short-term problem with sleep 
disturbances, anxiety, confusion, paranoia," he said. "Because there 
is a hallucinogenic component that some experience, it can create 
some short-term problems that might lead to hospitalization, 
especially if person has co-occurring mental issues."

Marie, a 19-year-old from Wheaton, said she favored molly, the 
powdered form of the drug reputed - incorrectly, experts say - to be 
purer than Ecstasy pills. She started taking it at 15 to enhance her 
enjoyment of electronic dance music shows.

"You felt you were like one with the music," she said. "It just made 
your body feel this crazy sensation."

But she took it so often that its effects dulled, leading her to try 
harder drugs such as heroin and cocaine even as she kept up her molly 
use. She finally entered rehab at Rosecrance in January, she said, 
and has been sober for almost 10 months.

It's unclear how often MDMA use results in death across the country - 
federal agencies don't keep that statistic - but experts say it is 
relatively rare.

Dr. Una McCann, a Johns Hopkins psychiatry professor who studies 
MDMA's toxic effects, said the problem isn't so much the drug as the 
behavior it provokes.

People who take MDMA and dance at sweaty, crowded nightclubs or 
festivals often overheat, which is dangerous enough: Two young people 
who died at the Electric Zoo music event in New York over the Labor 
Day weekend had fatally high body temperatures, according to the New 
York City medical examiner.

But another hazard comes when people try to compensate for their 
spiking temperatures by drinking a lot of water, McCann said. That 
can lead to hyponatremia, or a lowering of the blood's sodium level, 
a potentially lethal condition.

"The brain swells up and there can be total body organ failure," she said.

Chicago-area coroners and the Cook County medical examiner counted 10 
MDMA- related deaths since 2009 - four in Chicago and one each in 
Joliet, Lake Zurich, Libertyville, Naperville, Plainfield and Streamwood.

Most of the Chicago-area deaths were complicated by the presence of 
potentially fatal substances such as heroin, cocaine or prescription 
drugs. Scientific papers, though, contain many examples of people who 
died after taking untainted MDMA.

In the case of Alex Place, an undiagnosed medical condition played a 
tragic role.

Place was an artistic and adventurous young man, alternately outgoing 
and melancholy, who grew up in Kenosha aiming to become a pastor. He 
later redirected his ambition toward the restaurant business, and he 
had just made a career breakthrough by landing a job at a 
white-tablecloth restaurant in Gurnee when he left work the night of 
Feb. 12 to party with friends at a house in Streamwood.

Place's sister, Faith Hodge, said she knew her brother had 
experimented with MDMA, though he typically limited his substance use 
to marijuana and alcohol. According to an account two of Place's 
friends gave to police, the group at the Streamwood apartment used 
all three that night, though Place spent much of the time vomiting water.

Just before 2 a.m. he sent an affectionate text message to his 
girlfriend, Lisa Edwards, saying he was cuddling a stuffed Marvin the 
Martian doll and missing her badly.

"You're the best," he wrote. "The very best."

That was his last message to her, Edwards said. According to the 
police report, Place awoke around 11 a.m. and went into the bathroom. 
After about 15 minutes, one of his friends knocked on the door but 
received no response.

The friend took the door off its hinges and found Place lying on the 
floor, unconscious and unresponsive. Paramedics took him to St. 
Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates, where he was pronounced 
dead at 12:36 p.m.

The Cook County medical examiner discovered that Place had an 
enlarged heart, something Place hadn't known about, his family said. 
That and MDMA intoxication were ruled to be the causes of his death.

Place's death plunged his family and friends into a misery that has 
yet to recede. His sister said his absence makes "pieces of my heart 
feel like (they're) rotting." His stepfather, Carl Hodge, grieves for 
all the things he won't be able to teach Place. His girlfriend said 
Halloween, Place's favorite holiday, was especially painful, knowing 
he could no longer take her niece and nephew trick-or-treating.

And his mother, Krista Place, said that despite leaning hard on her 
faith, she still feels numb and uprooted.

"It's different now," she said. "I'm not the same. You don't think 
about that when you take a hit of (MDMA). What is it going to do to 
your family if you do die?"
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom