A US District Court judge in New York last Friday refused to sentence an Ecstasy defendant according to federal sentencing guidelines, saying they punish such offenses more harshly than scientifically justified and are based on "selective and incomplete" evidence.
The case was the subject of a legal intervention by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), with assistance from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). The ACLU Drug Law Reform Project challenged the judge in this case to review the sentencing guidelines and assess whether there was any rational basis for them, and relied on MAPS for a scientific review of the literature on the effects of Ecstasy.
MAPS executive director Rick Doblin had testified to the relative safety of Ecstasy before the US Sentencing Commission when it was setting the guidelines in 2001, but the commission ignored his and other expert testimony in setting guidelines that treated one gram of Ecstasy the same as 500 grams of marijuana when it came to sentencing.
In a December hearing, the ACLU presented the court with scientific evidence from expert witnesses to argue that the Ecstasy guidelines were flawed. Among those testifying was Harvard psychiatrist John Halpern, MD, who had parlayed a MAPS $15,000 grant for a pilot study of the drug's neurocognitive effects into a $1.8 million, five-year National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) that found long-term recreational Ecstasy use did not cause clinically significant cognitive damage.
In his written opinion, issued in May in anticipation of Friday's sentencing, Pauley found that sentencing McCarthy under the guidelines would "give rise to a sentence that is greater than necessary to serve the objectives of sentencing." Judge Pauley also lambasted the Sentencing Commission for "opportunistic rummaging" through the scientific evidence at the time of the 2001 hearing.
That hearing and the resulting guidelines grew out of the Ecstasy Anti-Proliferation Act of 2000, passed in the midst of a drug panic over spreading recreational use of the drug. That law directed the Sentencing Commission to review and increase the penalties for any Ecstasy trafficking or distribution offense.
"The harshness of the Ecstasy guideline affects hundreds of defendants each year in the federal system," said ACLU Drug Law Policy Project staff attorney Scott Michelman. "We are gratified that courageous and thoughtful jurists are addressing this problem, and we hope today’s decision will encourage more judges to take a hard look at this issue. This ruling demonstrates the importance of thoroughly reviewing the empirical basis underlying each of the US sentencing guidelines for drug offenses, to make sure the Guidelines reflect the current state of scientific knowledge."
As for McCarthy, he did 14 months in federal prison before being released in December while awaiting sentencing. He now lives in San Diego, where he works as a home health care nurse, volunteers with the homeless, and cares for his ailing father.