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Colleges are now on the lookout for a problem they'd like to avoid at any cost - Molly. That's the name of a new designer drug popular among college students. It's a purified form of the drug known as ecstasy. Police believe Molly is what killed four young people recently in just over a week, and sent many more to emergency rooms.

To make matters worse, authorities worry a bad batch may be circulating through the country. NPR's Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Molly has all the makings of what one official called an absolute disaster. It can be as easy to get, and as cheap, as a six-pack of beer. And it offers a euphoric high, a burst of energy and sometimes, mild hallucinations to those using it.

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SMITH: The spike in Molly use parallels the resurgence in electronic dance music at raves, clubs and festivals, like one in Boston this weekend.

STEVE: For me, it makes this music a lot more enjoyable. And you get like, really good experiences out of it. It's like - it's almost like life-changing, honestly - the experiences you get at these concerts.

SMITH: This man, who only wanted to be identified by his first name, Steve, says even the four recent fatalities would not deter him from using Molly.

STEVE: Well, there is the risk, but I've never had problems in the past. I feel like people that do just don't have really good self-control about it 'cause usually, it wouldn't be like, deadly unless you still were doing the wrong dosage of it.

SMITH: But experts say that's not true.

MICHAEL SNOW: I still think there's a lot of misconceptions about - sort of what it is, and what the dangers are.

SMITH: Boston festival producer Michael Snow helped set up stations around the festival, warning young people of the risk. Molly - short for molecule, is billed as a purified form of MDMA, the main ingredient in ecstasy. It boosts both serotonin and dopamine - making a person feel happy, and enhancing the pleasure of touch.

But Harvard Medical School Professor John Halpern says side-effects range from dehydration to the opposite.

JOHN HALPERN: I mean, you can become overhydrated and even die from that; it's called polydipsia. There's risk of having a cardiac abnormality; there are reports of seizure occurring in some individuals. And there are after-effects.

SMITH: Indeed, the crash after Molly can be so severe, Molly hangovers have been dubbed suicide Tuesdays. But experts say even more dangerous is that users don't really know what they are using.

RUSTY PAYNE: I mean, I can't stress it enough: This stuff is dangerous and deadly, and you are playing Russian roulette.

SMITH: Rusty Payne, a spokesman for the federal drug enforcement agency, says what people think is Molly, is often partly or completely something else. The recent deaths, he says, are part of a much larger problem of designer drugs - now being made in labs in China and Europe - that can be easily ordered online, or bought in the U.S.

PAYNE: And they'll market them with funny little names: Molly, Scooby-Doo, K2, spice, plant food, bath salts. This is a whole new frontier.

SMITH: Authorities are still investigating the exact makeup of the drugs involved in the recent fatalities. Meantime, they're warning people not to take any synthetic drugs at all. College campuses have also been trying to caution returning students, even as the popularity of Molly keeps on surging.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIAMONDS")

RIHANNA: (Singing) Palms rise to the universe as we moonshine and Molly...

SMITH: Mentions of Molly in hit songs like this one by Rihanna, glamorizing the drug, work against authorities trying to discourage it. And adding to the challenge, Molly is odorless and easy to conceal.

LINDSEY ALLEN: It's really hard to find drugs in that it can be kept anywhere - in underwear, in your hat; like, in your hair.

SMITH: At the Boston festival this weekend, Lindsey Allen was part of a beefed-up security staff on the lookout for Molly, or anyone using it in trouble. Allen says that tends to be easier to spot.

ALLEN: You could see them flying high, and they're looking at you, and you be like - you need some water.

SMITH: While this weekend's Boston festival ended without any fatalities, that shouldn't give anyone a false sense of security. As one DEA official put it, this is not about one bad batch of Molly, he says; there is no such thing as a good batch.

Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.

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