On some cavern wall in France, there’s a painting of cavemen sitting around a fire, roasting wooly mammoth and banging on drums. We’ve always loved music. We might even have sung before we talked. People have been gathering to make music since there were people, so I’m sure the campfire sing-a-long dates to pre-history.
And I’m also sure that in the corner of that picture, you can see a few especially scruffy cavemen passing around a primitive joint.
Music and Drugs are old friends, having now spent decades together terrifying parents and authority figures with the help of their accomplice, Sex. For whatever reason, the way drugs stimulate the brain complements music particularly well. And live music is even more appealing for our inner potheads; you can’t go to a concert without meeting a whiff — or a haze — of weed. Nobody seems to care too much, and as any weed-smoker will tell you, it’s all fairly harmless, maaan.
Unless you happened to be at the Electric Zoo festival in New York this past weekend. With a strong nudge from the New York City mayor’s office, organizers ended the festival a day early, after overdoses of bad Molly left two attendees dead and four more in critical condition at the hospital. A week earlier, three attendees at a Zedd concert at the storied House of Blues in Boston overdosed on the same drug. One died and the club management appeared before city officials to discuss what had happened. In July, over 100 attendees of the Paradiso festival in Seattle were hospitalized and one died after taking Molly tainted with cocaine, meth and LSD.
MDMA overdoses and the harm done by tainted strains of the drug are nothing new—people have been dying while taking Ecstasy for years. But the size and publicity of the Zoo shutdown pushed the issue into the public eye, if only for a brief moment.
The deaths at Electric Zoo were indicative of how the old music-and-drugs trope has evolved. The ever-increasing demand for stimulation that’s won hordes of fans for live dance music is also behind the new enthusiasm for Molly, which pairs well with the overwhelming stimulus of a dubstep set blasted through a weapons-grade speaker system. A new kind of music has found its new kind of drug. And like the concert drugs of yore, it seems fairly harmless—a good time in powdered form with a peppy name. Only, it can kill you.
It makes sense that a more intense experience would demand a more intense drug, and that a more intense drug would come with more intense risks. What’s different about Molly is that the good feelings it activates aren’t created by the drug itself, the way THC in weed creates a high. Instead, Molly causes your brain to release a flood of natural pleasure-inducing neurotransmitters. Also unlike weed, Molly carries with it the potential for an overdose, blamed for the two deaths at Electric Zoo. Then there’s the the risks associated with taking a tainted version of the drug. As an artificial freebase drug, Molly is easily and frequently tampered with. So the danger is twofold: you could overdose on MDMA itself or unknowingly take an impure dose, something you simply have to cross your fingers against. Unless you make it yourself, the purity is entirely out of your control.
This new and more deadly concert drug has become a fashion statement in a way that other drugs never were. People wander through festival campgrounds “looking for their friend Molly” but clearly enjoying the winks and laughs they get in response. Madonna (I guess she’s still alive?) created some controversy (yeah, it’s still her) when she asked the crowd at Ultra 2012, “How many people have seen Molly?” This status makes some sense. The chemicals Molly releases in the brain promote feelings of empathy and unity; take Molly with a group of friends, and it becomes a sort of semi-natural lovefest, without the inebriating effects that foreign substances like THC or alcohol can have. One can see then how Molly became associated with communal use, and through that, a drug with cultural currency. Now, flaunting the use of Molly isn’t reserved for “druggy” kids — it’s a mainstay of live EDM.
I really don’t mean to play Mom here, but it bears pointing out that we’ve attached cultural booster rockets to the ascent of a concert drug that’s significantly scarier than those we’ve used in the past. We take some recreational risks without batting an eye; it doesn’t seem to bother us that drinking is an order of magnitude more dangerous than MDMA. But the drugs coupled with music never presented the kind of hazard Molly does.
This is what makes the response to the cancellation of Electric Zoo’s final day so interesting. The Internet did register some modicum of sadness, with artists tweeting their condolences. At the same time, plenty of people were simply angry, unable to see why the festival had to be cancelled for a few overdoses on a drug that most wouldn’t consider “heavy.” “If people take drugs,” one would-be concertgoer told the New York Post, “that’s their own fault.” Maybe so. They should have known the risk and maybe we should all get used to this happening. But do we want to?