— 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, Ill., house, watching movies and texting his
23, an aspiring restaurateur from Kenosha, Wis., 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.
of teen drug abuse have noted a steep recent decline in the
portion of young people who see great risk in MDMA, the proper
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.
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."
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?"
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.
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.
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.
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.
doesn’t mean that regular MDMA use is free of consequences.
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
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.
felt you were like one with the music," she said.
"It just made your body feel this crazy sensation."
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.
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.
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.
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.
another hazard comes when people try to compensate for their
spiking temperatures by drinking copious amounts of water,
McCann said. That can lead to hyponatremia, or a lowering of
the blood’s sodium level, a potentially lethal condition.
brain swells up and there can be total body organ
failure," she said.
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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
the Chicago-area deaths were complicated by the presence of
potentially fatal substances such as heroin, cocaine and
prescription drugs. Scientific papers, though, contain many
examples of people who died after taking untainted MDMA.
case of Alex Place, an undiagnosed medical condition played a
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 had just made a career breakthrough
by landing a job at a white tablecloth restaurant in Gurnee,
Ill., when he left work the night of Feb. 12 to party with
friends at a house in Streamwood.
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.
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.
the best," he wrote. "The very best."
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.
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, Ill., where
he was pronounced dead at 12:36 p.m.
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 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.
mother, Krista Place, said that despite leaning hard on her
faith, she still feels numb and uprooted.
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?"