Should People Facing Ecstasy Charges Get Lighter Prison Sentences?

MDMA, ecstasy, molly
MDMA, ecstasy, molly
Courtesy DEA

Marijuana has come a long way in the nearly 14 years since the federal government jailed Tommy Chong for selling water pipes. It's now fully legal for anyone 21 or older to possess up to an ounce in California. A majority of Americans wants to see pot legalized from coast to coast. And even the federal government has had to stand down on raids against medical marijuana businesses in states where it's legal.

That has left some in the decriminalization movement to ponder the future of other drugs — chief among them, ecstasy. Drug advocates are planning to attend an upcoming United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) public hearing on prison-time guidelines for those convicted of federal MDMA charges. The current guidelines give ecstasy defendants sentences that are based on a "weight ratio" 500 times greater than marijuana — meaning that someone who sells 500 times more weed than ecstasy would face the same mandatory-minimum sentence. Just a little ecstasy will result in a long time in prison.

"There are a lot of stories of people getting decades behind bars for low-level MDMA offenses," says Jag Davies, director of communications strategy for the Drug Policy Alliance. "And it's safe to assume, as with any substance, people arrested and criminalized are more likely to be young and nonwhite."

In 2010, then–President Barack Obama signed into law new guidelines that reduced the weight ratio between powder cocaine and crack cocaine from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1. The crack rules — which had treated one gram of crack the same as 100 grams of powder — were seen as discriminatory to the preponderance of those convicted on crack charges: African-Americans.

Some see a similar kind of disparity and stigma with ecstasy compared with other drugs. In 2001, during an earlier wave of ecstasy use tied to all-night raves, the USSC increased recommended sentences. "This ... produced a 115 percent increase in MDMA-related prison sentences, and increased the average prison sentence of an offender from 34 months to 73 months," according to a statement from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a longtime advocate for legalizing ecstasy as a mentally therapeutic drug.

Because electronic dance music business and culture is largely rooted in Los Angeles, the city has been an epicenter of the ecstasy trade for decades. Still, taking MDMA out of the black market, which is the ultimate goal of advocates like MAPS, is a long way off.

"This is something that really needs a lot more attention," Davies says. "So many more people have used marijuana, so it's easier to debunk the myths around it."

Ecstasy has consistently been the cause of deaths at EDM festivals, but advocates say it's nowhere near as deadly as alcohol and some other drugs. MAPS founder Rick Doblin plans to address the USSC when it convenes April 19. "MDMA sentencing is egregiously disproportionate to its potential harms," he said in a statement.


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