Sentencing Commission Sets Harsh New Ecstasy Penalties, Panel Ignores Scientific, Medical Testimony, Heeds Only Drug Warriors 3/23/01

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People arrested on federal ecstasy (MDMA) charges will soon face more severe penalties than cocaine traffickers, the US Sentencing Commission decided this week. The commission acted at the direction of Congress, which last year passed an anti-ecstasy bill that called on the commission to set tough new standards.

The Sentencing Commission approved a temporary emergency rule good for six months, and will approve permanent new sentencing guidelines in May. The new standards effectively triple the amount of time those convicted of federal ecstasy charges will serve.

The commission's decision did not come for lack of effort by harm reduction activists, doctors, and scientists.

"MDMA is less likely to cause violence than alcohol, less addictive than cocaine or tobacco, and less deadly than heroin," New York University psychiatrist Julie Holland told the commission. Holland, who works in Bellevue Hospital's psychiatric emergency room, added, "I see alcoholics and crack addicts every time I go to work. I do not see people whose lives have been ruined by MDMA."

"Not only are MDMA-related cases a small percentage of all drug-related emergency room visits," Holland testified, "but a large percentage of these cases are not life-threatening. The most common adverse effects from acute MDMA intoxication are anxiety or panic reactions."

Other researchers attacked oft-repeated government claims that ecstasy causes long-term physiological damage. David Nichols, professor of molecular pharmacology at Purdue University, told the commission ecstasy has a "low addiction potential" and is unlikely to be used on a daily basis.

But the most impressive opposition to increased ecstasy penalties came from a high-powered group of academics and scientists gathered under the auspices of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), whose Drug Policy Project submitted to the commission a biting statement full of statistical comparisons. The group included famed criminologist Alfred Blumstein, a professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon University; Nixon era drug czar and current University of Maryland professor of clinical psychiatry Jerome Jaffe; Mark Kleiman, editor of the Drug Policy Analysis Bulletin and UCLA faculty member; University of Maryland professor and former RAND Corporation drug policy researcher Peter Reuter, and ten others. (The FAS statement and endorser list can be found at http://www.fas.org/drugs/MDMAsentencing.pdf online.)

The FAS experts said bluntly that there was "no justification, either pharmacologically or in policy terms" for increased penalties. "If the commission were to ratify the published proposal, the change in sentencing... would divert enforcement resources away from heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine toward MDMA. The result of such a diversion would be to make the overall drug abuse problem worse."

But commissioners made plain their fear that if they did not enact penalties harsh enough to appease Congress, lawmakers would pass even worse sentences.

"If we don't follow that directive or satisfy Congress that we've done it in a reasoned way," commission chair Diana Murphy said, "their remedy is a mandatory minimum."

And the panel was swayed by a drumbeat of testimony from federal officials about the dangers posed by the increasingly popular drug.

Federal sentencing guidelines, which constrict the range of sentences that federal judges may impose, are based on the quantity of the drug involved as measured in "equivalency" to one gram of marijuana. Under existing law, one gram of ecstasy has an equivalency of 35 grams of marijuana. In other words, selling one gram of ecstasy would result in the same "offense level" as selling 35 grams of marijuana.

The FAS argued that, "It would be more reasonable to treat ten doses of MDMA as equivalent, for sentencing purposes, to one dose of heroin. That would imply an equivalency of one gram of MDMA to 10 grams of marijuana." For the FAS, the current 35-gram equivalency was the upper limit of the tolerable.

Under the commission's published proposal for new guidelines, one gram of ecstasy would be considered the equivalent of 1,000 grams of marijuana. But, swayed somewhat perhaps by the scientific testimony, the commission settled for a 500 gram equivalency, placing ecstasy in the same offense category as cocaine.

Under the new guidelines, a person selling 200 grams of ecstasy -- about 800 tablets of the drug -- would face a prison sentence of between five and six-and-a-half years. Under the earlier guidelines, that person would have had to have been caught with 11,000 tablets to get the same sentence.

Rick Doblin of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (http://www.maps.org) was glum at the outcome. "I guess you could call that a slight victory," he told DRCNet, referring to the commission's small retreat on equivalencies.

"But even that's misleading," Doblin said. "We think the commission estimated the weights incorrectly. We believe the average pill may be more than the 300 grams the DEA said. We're trying to verify that. If could be that the number of pills to get you five years is less than 667."

Doblin also pointed out that a logical response for the ecstasy trade was to move to powders. "Manufacturers, users, and dealers will focus on reducing the weight of pills, or go into powder. People who sell pills get penalized for the weight of inert substances in the pills, not the actually amount of MDMA, which would be only a fraction of the weight."

The resulting ease of adding cuts or adulterants to the powder form of the drug is only one of the harmful consequences Doblin sees as a result of the change. "It will also produce pressure to do other drugs that are more dangerous. The basic thing is that if this causes young people to party with alcohol instead of MDMA, we're totally worse off."

Julie Holland told DRCNet she also was relieved that the changes weren't as bad as proposed. "I'm happy they didn't push it as high as they could have," she said. "They were under a lot of political pressure to increase it."

And, said Holland, she learned a civics lesson while in Washington for her testimony. "I learned that the corrections industry does a good amount of lobbying," she said. "It's not just them, but the pharmaceutical companies, tobacco companies, the alcohol industry, lots of people with vested interests who want to keep certain drugs inaccessible."

"I think we're seeing a real crackdown beginning," said Doblin. "With this and the moves against raves, using the crack house legislation, and the horse-and-pony shows they're running up on the Hill, these people are serious."

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Issue #178, 3/23/01 Mexico's President Fox Talks Legalization, Becomes Second Western Hemisphere Head of State to Break With Drug War Consensus | Sentencing Commission Sets Harsh New Ecstasy Penalties, Panel Ignores Scientific, Medical Testimony, Heeds Only Drug Warriors | Supreme Court Bars Drug-Testing of Expectant Mothers in South Carolina Case | See No Evil: New Jersey State Officials Sat on Racial Profiling Data for Years, Testimony at Hearings Contradicts Earlier Accounts, Points Finger at Verniero | New Mexico Post Mortem: Modest Reforms Enacted as Legislative Session Closes, Major Components of Johnson Package Await Another Time | DRCNet Interview: Dave Miller, Legislative Liaison for New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson | Puerto Rico Update: Drug Czar Office Created, Collazo Bows Out, McCaffrey Signs on as Advisor | Australian Prime Ministers Ousts Reformers from Drug Panel, Shows "Zero Tolerance" for Contrary Opinions | Alert: Drop the Rock (New York State) | The Reformer's Calendar | Errata: Switzerland | Editorial: The Next Wave of the Drug Debate
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