What Is Ecstasy (Molly)?

Also called MDMA, ecstasy is a hallucinogenic and stimulant drug

Ecstasy (MDMA) tablets white

 Willy turner / Wikimedia Commons

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

What Is Ecstasy?

Ecstasy, also commonly known by its slang name "Molly," is a synthetic drug known primarily for its hallucinogenic and stimulant effects. It's known to impart feelings of increased energy, pleasure, emotional warmth, and distorted sensory and time perception.

The chemical name for ecstasy is 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA). It is a derivative of amphetamine and has a similar structure to methamphetamine ("meth").

Some of the most colorful slang terms used for ecstasy (MDMA), based on the name of the drug, effects, and appearance, include: 

  • Adam
  • Beans
  • Candy
  • Clarity
  • E
  • Essence
  • Happy Pill
  • Hug Drug
  • Molly
  • Scooby Snacks
  • Lover's Speed
  • X
  • XTC

While ecstasy was initially used primarily in nightclubs and raves, its use has now spread to a wider range of populations.

Signs of Ecstasy Use

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, MDMA causes a range of effects including:

The effects of MDMA typically last for three to six hours. However, in some cases, you may continue to feel the side effects of molly the day after you take it.

The symptoms may persist for up to a week or more, especially if MDMA is mixed with other drugs such as marijuana. If you experience lasting side effects after taking Molly, be sure to seek help from a medical professional as soon as possible.

Types of Ecstasy

Ecstasy is usually taken in tablet or capsule form, but it can also be swallowed as a liquid or snorted as a powder.

  • Tablets: Ecstasy typically comes in a tablet form that's often imprinted with graphic designs or commercial logos.
  • Powder: Ecstasy known by the popular nickname Molly (which is slang for "molecular") is often used for the supposedly "pure" crystalline powder form of MDMA. However, Molly is often combined with other substances like synthetic cathinone (bath salts), according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Unlike other recreational drugs such as cocaine and nicotine, which are derived from plants, ecstasy is synthesized by altering the structure of the amphetamine molecule.

Because of the way it's made, its purity can vary substantially, and other compounds can be easily combined into the same tablet. Ecstasy additives and contaminants often include methamphetamine, caffeine, ephedrine, and ketamine.

Uses

Though known today mainly as a recreational drug, ecstasy has been used off-label in medical contexts. Ecstasy was explored as a therapeutic drug in the 1970s, as some psychotherapists believed it opened people up and enhanced their potential for empathy and understanding of one another.

This use was interrupted by the criminalization of MDMA. Ecstasy was classified as a Schedule I drug in 1985, which means that the substance has a high potential for abuse and is not approved by law to treat medical conditions.

However, there has been renewed interest in the medical use of MDMA alongside psychotherapy to treat conditions such as anxiety disorders—specifically social anxiety disorder (SAD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

One study found that the use of medical MDMA in autistic adults with social anxiety disorder helped reduce social anxiety symptoms such as perceived social threat, self-criticism, and shame. Still, more research is needed to fully understand the effectiveness of medical MDMA.

Impact of Ecstasy

Ecstasy works by influencing the activity of three chemicals in the brain: dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. These chemicals play a role in a number of different functions in the body including energy levels, mood, emotions, and sleep.

The immediate impact of ecstasy begins within about 45 minutes of taking a dose. People typically experience an increased sense of well-being and emotional warmth. Other effects include feeling greater empathy toward others and enhanced sensory perception.

Risks

While people use ecstasy experience these increased feelings of euphoria and alertness, taking the drug also has a number of adverse impacts including:

  • Disorganized thoughts
  • Feelings of detachment
  • Increased anxiety
  • Increased heart rate
  • Irritability
  • Nausea
  • Poor appetite
  • Sweating and hot flashes

Overdose is rare but can be life-threatening. Ecstasy overdose symptoms can include faintness, panic attacks or extreme anxiety, high blood pressure, and seizures. When ecstasy use is followed by vigorous physical activity, it can lead to a potentially dangerous rise in body temperature known as hyperthermia.

Another significant danger is the fact that people who take ecstasy don't really know what they are actually ingesting.

In one study, researchers found that only 60% of samples tested contained any MDMA at all and many were mixed with so-called "fake cocaine." In nearly 25% of the samples, the researchers were unable to identify what was actually in the tablets.

History of Ecstasy

MDMA was initially developed in 1912 as a pharmaceutical compound that could be used in the preparation of other pharmaceuticals, and it was patented in 1914. But once the drug's hallucinogenic properties were discovered, further development was stopped for several decades.

Ecstasy was one of several drugs tested in a military context decades after. It was then re-synthesized, first by Gordon Alles, then by Alexander Shulgin, who tested it on himself, his wife, and his friends.

Shulgin went on to develop a range of new compounds, with varying effects and risks, including MDMA and PMMA (paramethoxymethamphetamine), many of which ended up as versions of street ecstasy. It was many years after this that MDMA eventually appeared on the streets as a recreational drug.

An earlier version of ecstasy, MDMA became popular as a recreational drug during the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1980s, MDMA became fashionable as a party drug in the nightclub and rave scene and its use grew among college students, "yuppies," and in the gay community.

However, due to concerns about the health risks associated with ecstasy, it was made illegal in the United Kingdom in 1977, way ahead of its popularity in that country.

Molly was made illegal in the United States in 1985, at which time it was classified by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as a Schedule I drug, according to the Controlled Substances Act.

For a few years, in an attempt to circumvent the law, different versions of ecstasy were synthesized, which was the basis of the designer drugs movement. This production was eventually outlawed but re-emerged as a problem around the year 2000 with the popularity of homemade crystal meth.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. What is MDMA?.

  2. Meyer JS. 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA): current perspectivesSubst Abuse Rehabil. 2013;4:83–99. doi:10.2147/SAR.S37258

  3. Luoma J, Lear MK. MDMA-assisted therapy as a means to alter affective, cognitive, behavioral, and neurological systems underlying social dysfunction in social anxiety disorderFront Psychiatry. 2021;12:733893. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2021.733893

  4. Danforth AL, Grob CS, Struble C, et al. Reduction in social anxiety after MDMA-assisted psychotherapy with autistic adults: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot studyPsychopharmacology (Berl). 2018;235(11):3137-3148. doi:10.1007/s00213-018-5010-9

  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. What are the effects of MDMA?.

  6. Saleemi S, Pennybaker SJ, Wooldridge M, Johnson MW. Who is 'Molly'? MDMA adulterants by product name and the impact of harm-reduction services at raves. J Psychopharmacol (Oxford). 2017;31(8):1056-1060. doi:10.1177/0269881117715596

By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.