Ecstasy: Legal consequences

Last modified: Sunday, 31. May 2009 - 2:08 pm

Legal history

The penalties for ecstasy use and possession are complicated and rapidly changing. As lawmakers become aware of the availability and potential harmfulness of ecstasy, state and federal regulations are requiring more severe penalties than originally suggested when ecstasy became illegal in 1985. When ecstasy was originally moved to Schedule I in 1985, it was under a provision that allowed “emergency scheduling,” which could take place without a hearing. Ecstasy’s Schedule I status was made permanent a couple of years later. The Ecstasy Anti-Proliferation Act of 2000 was passed by legislators who saw that the rate of ecstasy use was growing faster than any other drug in the United States, and who believed the levels of punishment for trafficking were too low. This act prompted a change in the federal sentencing guidelines for trafficking and possessing with intent to sell, drastically increasing jail terms for fewer numbers of pills in possession.

Federal guidelines, regulations, and penalties

Rather than having separate regulations for possession for every illegal drug, legislators have outlined sentencing regulations for different amounts of marijuana possession, and then created a marijuana equivalency table in which different amounts of other drugs are said to be equal to specific amounts of marijuana. For example, one gram of cocaine is equivalent to 200 grams of marijuana, and one gram of heroin is equivalent to 1,000 grams of marijuana. Base offense levels, which guide sentencing, are determined according to this equivalency scale. Prior to the Ecstasy Anti-Proliferation Act of 2000, one gram of ecstasy (about three pills) was equivalent to 35 grams of marijuana. However, in response to the Act, legislators proposed drastic changes for trafficking penalties. The change proposed was to increase the equivalency of one gram of ecstasy be the same as 1,000 grams of marijuana, the same as heroin. There was outspoken disagreement from the scientific community, many of whom felt that if ecstasy’s equivalency were to be changed it should be lowered, based on comparison of ecstasy with more harmful drugs. Unlike heroin, ecstasy was not associated with non-drug crime; the ecstasy market was not associated with violence; there were very few reports of ecstasy users needing drug treatment; and the number of ecstasy-associated emergency room visits was not near the number associated with heroin.
As a result of the protests, a slightly different sentencing regulation was proposed and went into effect in May 2001. Instead, one gram of ecstasy is now equivalent to 500 grams of marijuana, making one dose of ecstasy five times more legally damaging, in terms of jail time, to possess than one dose of heroin. Possession of at least 800 pills or 200 grams of ecstasy carries a minimum sentence of up to six years for a first offense. Before the change, the minimum for a first offense was 15-21 months, and 11,000 pills were needed for a sentence of six years.
Although there are federal guidelines for sentencing of drug possession, the penalties imposed are a bit more subjective. There is a particular offense level based on the amount of ecstasy or number of pills in possession, and a penalty associated with that offense level. The penalty for first offense possession of a small (personal) amount of ecstasy is a maximum of one year in prison and a fine. Someone with one prior conviction is subject to a term of 15 days to two years in prison, and two or more prior convictions to a term of 90 days to three years, both with increasing fines. Along with the base offense level, courts also take into account the offender’s history of drug offenses, whether another crime was committed, and circumstances at the time of the arrest.
Federal guidelines are a springboard for state sentencing guidelines, which are different for each state in the country. Some states are much harsher than others in how they treat ecstasy-related offenses, and since the passage of the Ecstasy Anti-Proliferation Act of 2000, state laws are being proposed and changed quite rapidly. For example, in many instances, offenders in California with no prior possession charges, parole violations, or felonies, and who were not involved in other criminal activity at the time of arrest can plead guilty to a “diversion program” that will send them to drug treatment or subscribe community service rather than sending them to prison. If successfully completed, the plea of guilty will be set aside, and the criminal record cleared.
In Texas, on the other hand, possession of less than one gram (about three pills) carries a sentence of 18 days to two years with a very hefty fine. Possession of one to four grams carries a sentence of two to 20 years, four to 400 grams a minimum of five years, and more than 400 grams carries a sentence of 10 years to life in prison. New Jersey recently changed their sentencing regulations for ecstasy to five years in prison for up to 50 pills, five to 10 years for between 50 and 500 pills, and 20 years in prison for more than 500 pills. Illinois also recently changed its sentencing regulations in response to a widely reported ecstasy-related death, to four to 15 years in prison for possession of 15 doses of ecstasy.

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