Last summer, in a fit of legislative frenzy fueled by law enforcement and the mass media, Illinois lawmakers passed and Republican Gov. George Ryan signed a law stiffening penalties for even small-time distribution of MDMA, or ecstasy, and other club drugs (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/198.html#stepsbackward). That law went into effect on January 1, making Illinois' ecstasy law one of the harshest in the nation.
Under the new Illinois law, sale of as few as 15 ecstasy tablets will be treated as a Class X felony, like heroin or cocaine sales, punishable by up to 30 years in prison, with a mandatory minimum six-year sentence. Under the old law, persons possessing up to 900 Ecstasy tablets were eligible for probation. The new law also contains provisions allowing authorities to charge ecstasy dealers with "drug-induced homicide" if someone dies after ingesting the drug. Under the old law, dealers had to have sold about 200 tablets in order to be charged with murder in the event of a customer death.
Law enforcement and political figures in Illinois took a handful of rare but highly-publicized club drug-related deaths in the Chicago area in the last two years and created a faux public health and law enforcement crisis that spurred the legislation. Some were still at it as they welcomed the new law this week.
"We've had all these kids dying of overdoses from club drugs, but no one has been held responsible" because the penalties were too light, said Joseph Birkett, the suburban DuPage County state's attorney who led the push for the new law. "These drugs are dangerous, and that's how the law is going to treat them now," he told the Chicago Tribune.
All these kids dying of overdoses? As DRCNet reported in last August's article on the bill, The Illinois Department of Public Health's Center for Health Statistics could not come up with any hard numbers, nor could the governor's office, nor could the Dept. of Public Safety. One death commonly referred to as an "ecstasy overdose," that of 20-year-old Ohio resident James Roberts, occurred following his ingestion in March of both ecstasy and ketamine, a powerful animal tranquilizer. Two other deaths in suburban Chicago last summer which helped to fuel the anti-ecstasy frenzy were actually caused by another drug, PMA, which was fraudulently sold as ecstasy.
And the woman after whom the new law was ceremoniously named (beware of any law named after a sole victim), 23-year-old Kelly Baker of DuPage County, who died of an overdose in 1999, died 800 miles away from Chicago in New Jersey! In a recent series on club drug and heroin use in the Chicago suburbs, the suburban newspaper the Daily Record identified a grand total of one ecstasy death and four deaths from PMA overdoses.
More people die on area roads on a bad day than have died from all club drugs combined in the last few years. But proportion in the drug war seems to be an oxymoron.