Press Release  | 04/30/2001

Harsh New Federal Penalties for Ecstasy Take Effect

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Leading Scientists Warn Penalties Will Do More Harm Than Good

On May 1st, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, as instructed by Congress, will adopt an emergency amendment to increase federal penalties for Ecstasy-related offenses. The new penalties will treat Ecstasy harsher than cocaine and almost as severely as heroin. Under the new penalties less than half a pound of Ecstasy will warrant a five-year sentence and 2,000 grams will warrant a ten-year sentence. In comparison, it takes over a pound of powdered cocaine to warrant a five-year sentence and 5,000 grams to warrant a ten-year sentence. The penalty increases will become permanent on November 1, unless Congress passes legislation disapproving them.

The average federal sentence for ecstasy trafficking - after accounting for aggravating and mitigating circumstances - is expected to more than double from 26 months to 60 months. The penalties come despite pleas from the scientific community that they are unwarranted, given the effects of Ecstasy, and will do more harm than good.

In March the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) issued a bristling statement in opposition to the proposed increases, concluding that that there is "no justification, either pharmacologically or in policy terms" for increased Ecstasy penalties. Fourteen leading neuroscientists and drug policy experts signed the FAS statement, including Dr. Charles Schuster, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse under Reagan, and Dr. Jerome Jaffe, "drug czar" under Nixon.

Many in the scientific community fear that the increased penalties will lead to the production of more counterfeit substances being sold as Ecstasy (so sellers can meet the demand for Ecstasy without risking harsher sentences.) Most of the problems attributed to Ecstasy stem not from the drug itself, but from the effects of counterfeit drugs sold to unsuspecting buyers as Ecstasy. For instance DXM, often fraudulently sold as Ecstasy, inhibits sweating and when coupled with dehydrating activity, such as dancing, can cause heatstroke. PMA, another Ecstasy substitute, has been implicated in the deaths of a dozen young people.

The increased penalties will result in more young, non-violent Americans being sent to prison for long periods of time. The U.S. Sentencing Commission reports that over one-third of the federal offenders sentenced for Ecstasy offenses in 2000 were between the ages of 21 and 25. The average age of all federal ecstasy offenders is 27. Over 85 percent of these offenders are "Category I" offenders, the lowest category of offenders - having little or no criminal history. Sixty percent of all federal prisoners are currently imprisoned on drug charges.

"These new penalties are a step backward in our country's attempt to deal with the problem of drug abuse," said Bill McColl, legislative director for The Lindesmith Center- Drug Policy Foundation. "Solutions to problems associated with Ecstasy use should be rooted in science and the interest of public health, rather than harsh and arbitrary sentencing schemes."

Facts on the New Federal Penalties

  • The Ecstasy Anti-Proliferation Act of 2000 mandated that the U.S. Sentencing Commission increase federal penalties for Ecstasy offenses. These new increases take effect on May 1st on an emergency basis. They become permanent on November 1, unless Congress disapproves them The new penalties treat Ecstasy offenses more harshly than powder cocaine offenses. In fact, when considered on a per-dose basis, Ecstasy will be treated more severely than heroin.

  • Under the new penalties, 200 grams (less than half a pound) of Ecstasy will warrant a five-year sentence. 2,000 grams will warrant a ten-year sentence. In contrast, 500 grams (over a pound) of powdered cocaine warrants a five-year sentence and 5,000 grams warrants a ten-year sentence. The US Sentencing Commission estimates that the average sentence for Ecstasy trafficking - after accounting for aggravating and mitigating factors - will more than double from 26 months to 60 months.
  • In March the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) issued a bristling statement in opposition to the proposed increases, concluding that there is "no justification, either pharmacologically or in policy terms' for increased Ecstasy penalties. Fourteen leading neuroscientists and drug policy experts signed the FAS statement, including Dr. Charles Schuster, Director of the Addiction Research Institute and former director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse under President Reagan; and Dr. Jerome Jaffe, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Maryland and former "drug czar" under President Nixon.
  • Ecstasy traffickers generally are younger than traffickers of other major drugs. Over one-third of the federal offenders sentenced for Ecstasy trafficking in fiscal year 2000 were between the ages of 21 and 25 years old. The average age was 27.
  • Over 85 percent of federal Ecstasy offenders were "Category I" offenders, with little or no criminal history. In contrast, 55 percent of drug traffickers overall are category I.
  • In fiscal year 1999, federal offenders sentenced for Ecstasy trafficking received a sentencing enhancement for weapon in involvement in only 1.9 percent of cases, compared to 12.2 percent for drug trafficking overall.
  • There were 169 federal convictions for Ecstasy offenses in 2000, a 48 percent increase above the 1999 figure (114 cases), and a 745 percent increase about the 1998 figure (20 cases.) Federal convictions will probably skyrocket over the next couple of years as local and state police kick Ecstasy busts to the feds where defendants will face harsher sentences.
  • William McColl at 202-216-0035 or Bill Piper at 202-216-0035

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