The Tech of Buying and Identifying Drugs

Where do people get drugs like MDMA (Molly, ecstasy)?

Traditionally, drugs were bought through complex networks of manufacturers, smugglers, large scale dealers, small scale dealers, and people passing along small amounts of drugs to friends.  It was inefficient and insecure, with a great deal of violence and fraud.  Although this market is certainly still alive and well, in recent years it has been challenged by the darknet markets.

The darknet markets are based on two main technologies:  TOR and Bitcoin.

TOR is (in the simplest sense) a web browser, like Chrome or Safari.  It encrypts everything you send and receive (and bounces it all around the internet through multiple relays) making it extremely difficult for anybody to track where you go or what you do online.   TOR also allows for ‘hidden services’, web sites that are buried beneath many layers of relays and encryption, making it almost impossible to find them.  TOR’s hidden services (unintentionally) solved the drug trade’s problem of letting sellers and buyers find each other with minimal risk of detection by law enforcement.

The Silk Road was the most famous of the early markets, though the original is long gone (busted by law enforcement).  But the market abhors a vacuum, and there are now many more (and arguably even larger) darknet markets.

Since the darknets are (by definition) not a part of search engines like Google, a new generation of specialized search engines has started to spring up, led by the Grams search engine.   (This link only works in the anonymous TOR browser.) Grams allows people to simply search for something they want (such as “Moroccan hash oil”) and see offers from suppliers around the world.  (Law enforcement has surely never had a ‘holy shit’ moment quite like this; there seems to be no easy way to fight this new distribution channel.)

Of course, being able to find somebody on the internet who claims to be willing to sell you drugs is only half the solution.  How do buyers know who they can trust?  How do they actually make the purchase?

The trust problem turned out to be relatively easy to solve; the markets created seller ratings, just like you see on eBay.  If a seller didn’t deliver on their promises, they would get a bad reputation on that market and sales would dry up.

But that left the problem of paying for something illegal without getting caught.   That’s where Bitcoin came into the picture.    A Bitcoin is a mathematical token that can be passed around like a bong at a party.  Each bitcoin is unique and can’t be duplicated (but they can be divided up, so you can send somebody (for instance)  0.1024 bitcoins, if that happens to be how much they are asking for something.)  Bitcoins are also very hard to create (although it can be done), so there’s a strictly limited supply.  How the Bitcoin network works is complicated and very technical, but…it works.   If you get a Bitcoin, you can send it somebody else over the network.

Because Bitcoin has an established market and a reliable way to pass around these ‘coins’ between strangers, Bitcoin can be used as a sort of money.  There are people who have Bitcoins who are willing to sell them for dollars (or pounds or Euros or whatever else you might have.)   And there are people who are willing to sell you things for Bitcoins (since they can then turn around and sell the Bitcoins for real cash.)

If that all seems a bit hard to wrap your brain around, let’s just say that Bitcoins are internet play money that you can trade for real money or buy things with.  Bitcoins have become one of the preferred ways to somewhat anonymously hand over money across the internet (although staying anonymous can still require caution.)   Bitcoin has plenty of competitors these days; Etherium is probably the most popular alternative and works similarly.

Caution:  The price of Bitcoins isn’t attached to something ‘real’ (like the value of gold or the economy of a certain country), so their value is wildly unstable.   Some people like to hang onto them in hopes that they’ll go up in value, but generally the idea is to buy however many Bitcoins you might need for a particular purchase and then make that purchase rather than hold onto a significant amount of coins.   There is almost universal agreement among economists that the recent wild increases in bitcoin value is a speculative bubble, driven by the greater fool effect.

Bitcoins are held in a digital wallet (an app.)   Each of these ‘wallets’ has a unique ID (address), so a buyer can send coins from their wallet to a seller’s wallet over the internet after getting the seller’s information.

Buying Bitcoins in the first place can be a bit complicated.  The big brokerage websites will require registration with your real name, etc., making your coin purchases at least initially trackable.  Some areas actually have vending machines you can buy bitcoins from.  And a curious market has developed where you can send untraceable cash to a bitcoin seller and have them transfer the purchased Bitcoins to your wallet ID.  This system seems to work surprisingly well, protected by more customer feedback and seller rating mechanisms.  As always, in the black market (or gray market) reputation is everything.

So, a potential buyer might use the TOR browser to search for something with Grams, contact a seller on a marketplace to buy something, them send the seller Bitcoins to pay for it.   After that, the buyer has to hope that the seller comes through!  If nothing goes wrong (such as the seller getting busted before they can send the buyer’s shipment), whatever they purchased usually arrives by mail or package delivery services like FedEx.

Fake pills and pill testing

One problem faced by MDMA (Molly/ecstasy) users is the uncontrolled quality of pills. Sometimes the pills contain something along with the MDMA (such as ephedra, caffeine, etc) or they don’t contain MDMA at all (methamphetamine, etc.) In one particularly horrific case, a criminal group produced a batch of a drug called PMA and sold it as MDMA, causing an estimated twenty deaths worldwide (2000). How does a user protect themselves?

The first line of defense is pill testing sites, such as EcstasyData.org, which you can send a pill to for analysis; the site puts pictures and analysis results of the pills on-line. The advantage of this system is that if you have a pill of a certain color and logo you can look it up and see what similar pills contained (or if you buy a batch of pills, you can send one in and find out specifically what’s in that batch.)  If you want to send in a pill to be tested, it costs $40.

One problem is that even pills with the same color and logo can contain different drugs. Maybe the manufacturer changed what they were making. Maybe a competitor decided to take advantage of a brand’s good reputation by using the design themselves.

Beyond the serious analytical labs, you can also test your pills yourself.  The instructions may look a little intimidating, but all you have to do is scrape a little bit of the pill off onto a plate and put a couple drops of the test chemical on it. The sample will turn different colors depending on what’s in it.  The most basic test (Marquis) will quickly turn black if you drop the test liquid on real MDMA.

Test kit sources:


“pill
Elevation Chemicals seems to be the best value around for traditional ecstasy pill testing kits, and they’re offering my readers an extra $2 off a single test reagent with the discount code “DEA”, or $3 off a test kit with the code “DEAkit”.  (Thanks, guys!)

Dancesafe is a non-profit harm reduction group that sells test kits, including a fentanyl test strip.  Prices are substantially higher, but it’s a good cause.

EZ Test is perhaps the best known test kit supplier in Europe, and offers some interesting products.

The limitation of the home test kits is that they usually can’t identify multiple drugs within the same pill. They can tell you if a pill probably contains MDMA, but not whether or not it also contains methamphetamine, etc.

Pill appearances vary widely, and are determined solely by the tastes of the maker. Coloring is often added, either throughout the entire pill or as granules of colored binders to create speckles of color. (Binders are chemicals that just add size and help hold the pill together. ‘Ecstasy’ pills are usually about 75% binders by weight.) It has been claimed that different colored specks in a pill are different drugs, but there is no basis for these rumors; the specks are simply added for appearances.

What Might Be in a Pill?

MDMA: The real Molly/ecstasy, and what you’re probably looking for.

MDA: This cousin of MDMA is very similar in affects, but has been described as ‘more psychedelic’ and often produces distinct visuals (people have reported seeing smoke rings, faces appearing in clouds, etc.) MDA has become more common in recent years, with some people actually prefering it over MDMA. The test kit can determine if a pill contains MDA instead of MDMA. (Pills containing a mixture of MDMA and MDA are somewhat common.)

MDEA: Rarely seen, MDEA is another cousin of MDMA. It produces euphoria but seems to be relatively sedating (people just sitting around feeling good, not prone to dancing and animated conversation as you would expect with MDMA.) MDEA is pleasant in its own right, but lacks the ‘fire’ of the MDMA experience. The test kits cannot distinguish between MDMA and MDEA.

Methamphetamine: METH is a powerful and relatively dangerous stimulant drug. The home test kits can identify pills that contain METH by itself, but not METH combined with one of the other MDxx drugs.

DXM (dextromethorphan): This legal cough syrup ingredient is also seen with some frequency. It’s psychoactive at high doses. A DXM pill is a deliberate attempt at a rip-off, and dealers selling them should be dealt with accordingly. The test kit can usually identify a pill containing DXM.

Ketamine: Rarely sold as ‘ecstasy’, Ketamine is a sedative used for veterinary surgery. It used to be used for humans as well, but FDA approval was withdrawn after patients began reporting having hallucinations while they regained consciousness. Combining ketamine and MDMA in a pill is an odd choice and should be regarded as another rip-off attempt. The test kit does not identify ketamine.

Caffeine, Ephedrine, Psuedoephedrine: Seen with some frequency, these ingredients are relatively inactive and safe, and should be regarded as another rip-off.

Legal Psychoactives: Occasionally legal chemicals like piperazines have been sold as molly/ecstasy. When “research chemicals” have appeared, it’s almost always been as a pure pill (so the test kit will identify them as not being real MDMA.)

PMA: para-MethoxyAmphetamine is rarely seen, although it pops up every now and then. The first time a large batch of PMA hit the streets, it killed about 20 people. The main problem seemed to be that it took over an hour to kick in (vs. 30-40 minutes for MDMA), so users would think they had gotten weak pills when nothing happened in the first hour, take a few more, and overdose. I doubt this one will appear again in large amounts: Anybody manufacturing or selling PMA would be hunted to the ends of the earth by the users, dealers, and drug enforcement agencies alike: PMA is cursed by the drug using community. The test kit does not identify PMA specifically, but would have shown that most of the PMA pills seen in the past were not real MDMA.

Heroin: Some dealers claim such a thing is common, but it’s a myth.  There has been some suggestion (based on a misunderstanding of the metabolic pathways involved) that heroin might significantly slow the metabolic breakdown of MDMA. This is not the case. At least one pill containing heroin was sent to ecstasydata.org. Although it did indeed contain heroin, it did not contain MDMA or any similar drug, but did contain aspirin and Prozac. If you take a close look at the pill, you can see that the logo on it sticks out, and the pressing quality is very low. This appears to be somebody’s idea of a joke: A couple common medications crushed up, a little heroin tossed in, and mashed together with a cheap hand press. No self-respecting manufacturer would have used such low quality pressing dies, much less crushed up aspirins as the binder.

(Speaking of people’s idea of a joke, many years ago when methamphetamine was relatively new on the public’s radar, one of the evening news shows went in search of the scoop on this new drug scare. Two of the people they encountered were self-proclaimed meth users who showed the eager reporters how ‘street meth’ was made: They crushed up some Sudafed on the sidewalk (literally on the street), spit on it, poured a little lighter fluid on it, and stirred it around with a stick. “That’s how you make street meth” they deadpanned to the reporter. The reporters of course didn’t get the joke. Instead, they went on at some length about how horrible and unsanitary a drug this ‘street meth’ must be, never suspecting that they were simply being made fun of by the ‘dumb druggies’.)

LSD, cocaine, mescaline: LSD and Mescaline have never been found in ‘ecstasy’ pills. There have been a few isolated cases of pills containing cocaine (1, 2) and MDMA (and a few pills containing only cocaine that might be mistaken for ‘ecstasy’ tablets.) Cocaine actually counteracts MDMA (it blocks the serotonin transporters) so it simply doesn’t make sense to use it as a cut; meth is cheaper and more effective. Sometimes dealers will describe a pill as containing LSD or mescaline to explain it’s more ‘psychedelic’ qualities (such as an MDA pill would produce.) Although famous, mescaline is actually extremely rare in the drug trade.

Rat Poison and Crushed Glass: Just another one of those urban legends, like giant alligators in New York’s storm sewers. It wouldn’t surprise me if this legend is courtesy of the same sort of people who brought us the ‘street meth’ story, but only the hoaxer knows for sure. (Once upon a time a pill containing strychnine was reportedly found, but no other pills like it ever showed up, nor were there any cases of strychnine poisoning reported, making it likely that it was either yet another prank or somebody was trying to poison a particular person.)

Illegal drug manufacturers live in an environment of almost pure capitalism; the big players have every reason to want to keep their customers happy and safe, both to avoid retaliation and keep business. In the end, we get out of the system what we demand out of it. Don’t tolerate fakes or adulterated pills. I’m not suggesting you go break an offending dealer’s legs yourself (although I wouldn’t condemn it either), but at the least complain, and if complaints don’t move them, report them to the police.

People often assume that a pill was cut with some other drug if they have a bad reaction to it, such as a panic attack. This isn’t necessarily the case; real MDMA can itself cause dramatic side effects. In spite of a somewhat common perception that ‘ecstasy’ deaths are due to other drugs being mixed into the pills, deaths from pure MDMA can and do occur. Guessing what a drug was from the subjective effects is usually very unreliable unless you have considerable prior experience with the suspected drug.

Feeling scared? There’s no need to be. Check EcstasyData, get a test kit yourself, and buy from people you trust. With the exception of PMA, most ‘fake’ pills aren’t particularly dangerous…just a disappointment if you wanted MDMA. The testing lab results also probably make things seem worse than they are, since people send in pills they think might be fake. Pills known to be good are likely to just be used and not reported.

What does MDMA cost?

Prices can vary quite a bit. Typically in the US, you’re looking at $10-$20 a pill. Sometimes you can find pure MDMA powder (retail prices might be in the $60-$100/gram range in small amounts; in large amounts it can be found for less than $20/gram.)  The Drug Enforcement Agency suggests MDMA pills cost about 25-50 cents to manufacture, but that doesn’t take into account the large distribution costs. Prices are generally lower in Europe; in some cases good pills can be had for a few dollars each.

Besides testing it, is there any way to tell if a pill is real MDMA?

Not for sure, but here’s one odd piece of trivia: MDMA sometimes has an odd root-beer/black licorice smell. There has been some debate regarding the source of this smell; some say it’s from leftover safrole, although I think the far more likely suspect is a waste product called 3,4-methylenedioxyphenylpropan-2-ol. MDMA also has a very bitter taste, but so do many drugs so that’s not much help.

What’s a ‘double stack’ or ‘triple stack’ pill?

Physically larger pills. The name (and usually the dealers) imply that they contain 2-3 times the usual amount of MDMA. Don’t fall for it–the size of a pill doesn’t reliably have anything to do with how much MDMA is in it. Most of the weight/bulk of pills is from binders; food-safe chemicals used to hold the pill together.

What is “Molly”?

Slang for “molecular”. In theory, “molly” is high purity MDMA powder. This form is increasing in popularity and availability (several readers have reported that MDMA powder is easier to get than pills in some areas.) Dosage and other considerations are the same as for pills.

How much MDMA is in a pill?

That can vary quite a bit. Traditionally, an ‘ecstasy’ pill has been assumed to contain about 100 mg of MDMA, but in recent years pills have grown stronger; sometimes much stronger!   These days, pills may contain as much as 275 mg of MDMA; an amount that could be dangerous to a small or otherwise sensitive person.

Is MDMA a form of Methamphetamine?

No. The structure of MDMA is similar to that of METH, as indicated by its full name (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine) but the effects are quite different. Where METH is primarily a dopaminergic drug, MDMA is primarily a serotonergic drug. In terms of structure, MDMA is further from METH than the decongestant Sudafed is; small differences in structure can make big differences in effects.

Are these other drugs like PMA the result of botched attempts to make MDMA?

Small amounts of MDA or MDEA could result from using impure chemicals in an MDMA synthesis, but the others could not accidentally occur. When PMA appeared, it was intentionally made; it could not result from a failed MDMA synthesis. Generally, the choice of which drug to produce is based on the chemist’s interests and availability of chemicals. When a group chose to make PMA, they did so because the chemical needed to make it (4-allylanisole) was more readily available than the chemical needed for MDMA (safrole), which is tightly controlled. In this case, the government’s success in restricting access to chemicals has cost the lives of dozens of young people.

How should MDMA be stored?

MDMA is quite stable, chemically speaking, and can be stored for very long periods of time. (Shulgin, who was largely responsible for popularizing MDMA, once said that it was so stable that if they had put some in the pyramids with the pharaohs it would still be good today. True to urban legend form, it wasn’t too long before the story was spreading that Ecstasy had been found in the pyramids. No, not quite, but it’s an interesting example of how misinformation can accidentally be created and spread.)

Still, it doesn’t hurt to give it some care. It’s hard to go wrong with the standard advice of an air-tight container (an empty prescription or over-the-counter pill bottle is fine), stored in a cool dark place. Beyond protecting your stash from the elements, be sure to protect it from the human elements: Do you really want your parents/roommate/etc. to find them? There have also been several cases of toddlers being poisoned after they found and ingested a loose ‘ecstasy’ pill. All made a full recovery, but you should take care that nobody finds your drugs who shouldn’t. Hide them somewhere very out of the way or, ideally, in a locked container such as a file cabinet or safe.

Can (drug sniffing) dogs detect MDMA?

Certainly. Heck, humans can often smell it. Not all dogs are trained to spot MDMA (most of those that are focus on smuggling/shipping ports, not casual users.) Another popular question is “if I walk by a drug sniffing dog with some pills on me, will he smell them?” That depends on a lot of factors. If you’re carrying a few pills in an air-tight container (ideally having washed the outside of the container and your hands with soapy water) the dog might not be able to smell it. As a more practical matter, drug dogs don’t actually give much attention to when they smell drugs unless their handler has ordered them to search. If a dog isn’t currently in ‘search’ mode, you could probably walk by it with a backpack full of heroin and the dog wouldn’t alert. After all, they’re around drugs a lot, and need to behave when the people with the drugs are police, etc. doing their job.

So…if the dogs can smell it, how does so much get into the country?

Because a dog can only smell something exposed to the air. Smugglers know this, and have become patrons of vacuum-packing machines (like you see on those late-night infomercials.) A smuggler might vac-pack the drugs, wash everything off thoroughly, and just send it off via Fed-Ex. Given the huge profit potential of getting MDMA from Europe to the US, there are probably a lot of people doing just that.