Under current Wisconsin law, simple possession of MDMA, or ecstasy as it is commonly known, is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. That's not tough enough for state Rep. Gregg Underheim (R-Oshkosh) and state Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton), who have introduced a bill to make possession of the popular recreational drug a felony.
Under the bill offered by Underheim and Erpenbach, simple possession of ecstasy and a number of other so-called club drugs, including GHB and ketamine, would become a felony punishable by up to two years in prison and a $5,000 fine. Penalties for the distribution of Ecstasy and other club drugs would also increase, to come in line with penalties for heroin and cocaine. Under the proposal, sale of up to tens grams is worth up to 7 ½ years in prison; sale of more than 10 grams could merit up to 22 ½ years. Mandatory minimum sentences kick in at the sale of more than three grams, which calls for a six-month minimum stay behind bars, and range up to a 10-year mandatory minimum for sale of more than 400 grams. (The legislative analysis and full text of the bill are available at the Wisconsin legislature web site -- http://www.legis.state.wi.us -- by searching on Assembly Bill 464 or AB464.)
The move comes after 11 months of increasing concern among Wisconsin officials, which garnered its latest burst of media attention only three weeks ago with a "Raves, Ravers, and Club Drugs" conference in Waukesha attended by social workers, health professionals, and school and law enforcement officials. The conference, and the dire warnings of attendees, received extensive coverage in newspapers covering the state's two most populated areas, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Capital Times in Madison.
"It's life-threateningly scary to me," Jim Haessly, director of student services for the Waukesha School District, told the Journal Sentinel.
"It's here, and it's big time," Kathy Sorenson, program director of Project HUGS in Madison, a group that counsels families of kids with drug and alcohol problems, warned the same paper.
Haessly and Sorenson had been listening to the likes of Madison Police Detective George Chavez, a local law enforcement rave guru, who painted lurid pictures of all-night dance parties with heavy drug use drawing revelers from hundreds of miles away and enticing unwary teens through the lure of the Internet, according to local press accounts.
Raves there certainly are in Wisconsin and drugs may well be consumed at such events, as they are at many public events, but despite the official angst, there are few hard numbers to demonstrate that ecstasy is a significant public health or law enforcement problem. According to a report from the Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance, "Crime and Arrests in Wisconsin: Preliminary Report, 2000," club drug possession arrests, predominantly ecstasy, accounted for little more than 1% of all Wisconsin drug arrests. Club drug sales arrests, 205 people in 2000, accounted for fewer than 1% of all drug arrests. Of some 25,000 persons arrested on drug charges in the state last year, fewer than 600 were arrested for club drugs (http://oja.state.wi.us/static/pdf%20files/publications/crime00/ucrprelim99.pdf).
As for health effects, the number of Wisconsinites who have actually died after taking ecstasy appears tiny. The Journal Sentinel, in its sensationalistic article on the rave conference, could point to only one ecstasy-related death in the state, that of 16-year-old Brett Zweiful of Madison, who died last year after attending a Madison rave. But that didn't stop the paper from asserting that "ecstasy-related deaths are more prevalent in other parts of the country," then recycling the long-exposed lie that club drugs caused for 234 Florida deaths from 1997 to 2000 (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/138.html#floridacount).
An aggressive push by law enforcement and the drug treatment complex, abetted by a supine mass media, thus laid the groundwork for Underheim and Erpenbach's bill. Underheim told the Journal Sentinel that Detective Chavez and Dane County (Madison) District Attorney Mary Ellen Karst proposed the tough new law, telling him that existing penalties were not sufficient for the damage the drug could allegedly do.
Underheim apparently bought into that thinking completely, then added his own uniquely reversed race-spin. "There should not be a distinction between the dangerous drugs taken by suburban kids and the dangerous drugs used by kids in inner city Milwaukee," he told the newspaper, using time-honored code words for white and minority youth. "The law enforcement community is working aggressively to deal with the problem," Underheim added. "This bill would give law enforcement more tools they need to control the use of this drug."
It would also force more recreational ecstasy users into drug treatment, if Detective Chavez has his way. "Kids who can pay the [old] fine -- who's going to want to sit through treatment," he complained to the Journal Sentinel.
The legislation is currently moving through committees in the state Assembly and Senate.