Ecstasy Laws

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“Ecstasy,” a drug also known as “E,” is the street name for 3, 4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA). It also includes substances that have been mixed with MDMA and unknown groups of drugs. Ecstasy is a psychoactive drug, which alters moods and distorts perceptions. It is typically taken by pill and provides the user with euphoria, increased energy, and elevated sensual awareness. Ecstasy is often associated with “rave” culture and all its trappings, among them all-night dance parties, electronic music, and glow sticks.

Adverse Effects of Ecstasy

Short-term adverse effects of Ecstasy use may include:

  • rapid heartbeat
  • muscle tension and stress (including jaw clenching and teeth grinding)
  • blurred vision and chills
  • dehydration, and
  • confusion, depression, and severe anxiety.

In addition to these side effects, Ecstasy use can indirectly lead to water intoxication. There are documented cases of MDMA users drinking excessive amounts of water in order to compensate for their overexertion and the drug’s dehydrating effect. Though rare, this inordinate water consumption can be fatal.

Scientists have associated Ecstasy with damage to the central nervous system, including memory loss, and long-term behavioral effects. Almost all agree that Ecstasy is very dangerous, particularly because of the range of potential contaminants contained in the pills. However, whether Ecstasy impairs brain functioning is a hot topic of debate. A 2011 study sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found no link between Ecstasy and cognitive defects.

A Modern Drug: From Unknown to Mainstream

In 1914, the German pharmaceutical company Merck patented the compound that would come to be known as Ecstasy. Scientists had discovered the substance while searching for a medication to stop bleeding. In the 1950’s, the U. S. Army Chemical Center became interested in Ecstasy’s “brainwashing” potential, and studied it using animal testing. The drug appears to have been largely forgotten until 1976, when psychotherapists began to endorse it for its introspection and empathy-boosting effects. (Amanda Kay, The Agony of Ecstasy: Reconsidering the Punitive Approach to United States Drug Policy, 29 Fordham Urb. L.J. 2133, 2158 (2002).)

Ecstasy would soon find its way into the mainstream, becoming prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s. Its popularity surged in part because of the perception that “E” was safer than “hard” drugs like heroin and cocaine. The Ecstasy explosion may have also been fueled by how easily distributors could come by it. While drugs such as cocaine and heroin required large initial investments and international smuggling operations, amateur chemists could produce vast quantities of Ecstasy with just a lab and some cheap ingredients. (Gregory Kau, Flashback to the Federal Analog Act of 1986: Mixing Rules and Standards in the Cauldron, 156 U. Pa. L. Rev. 1077, 1082 (2008).)

The Federal Government Says “No” to Ecstasy

In 1914, the year Merck patented MDMA, Congress enacted the Harrison Narcotics Act. The legislation aimed to end public distribution of cocaine and heroin. Congress has since enacted dozens of laws controlling drug distribution. One such law was the Comprehensive Drug Abuse and Prevention Control Act of 1970, which consolidated federal drug regulation. Title II of this law was The Controlled Substances Act (CSA), which classified drugs according to five “schedules.” Schedule I drugs have no recognized medical use, have a high potential for abuse, cannot be used safely even under medical supervision, and carry the most stringent criminal penalties. Schedules II through V drugs have an increasingly acceptable use, decreasing potential for addiction, and carry lesser penalties. The CSA is the source of the federal government’s authority in its fight against drug use.

Congress didn’t outlaw Ecstasy until 1985; in 1988, the government permanently classified it as a “Schedule I” substance. Penalties for Ecstasy possession and manufacture are set out in federal legislation, while the Sentencing Guidelines are designed to implement them, as explained below.

Federal Sentencing for Ecstasy Crimes

In 2001 the United States Sentencing Commission amended the Federal Sentencing Guidelines to provide harsher sentences for offenses involving Ecstasy. For example, the amended Guidelines increased the average penalty for Ecstasy trafficking from 34 to 73 months’ imprisonment. (Kay, supra, at 2168.) In fact, the penalty structure for Ecstasy is now even more severe than that for powder cocaine.

In 2005, with its decision in United States v. Booker (543 U.S. 220), the Supreme Court held that the Sentencing Guidelines are advisory, not mandatory. Thus, in 2011 a federal judge in New York was free to reject the sentencing guideline for Ecstasy-related crimes. The judge found the guideline too harsh given what is known about MDMA. While the sentencing guideline called for 63 to 78 months in prison for conspiracy to possess and distribute Ecstasy, the judge sentenced the defendant to 26 months for committing that crime. He found that the Sentencing Commission had relied on incomplete scientific evidence in setting the range of penalties for Ecstasy crimes.

Nevertheless, the sentencing guideline for Ecstasy offenses remains in effect. Judges, even though armed with the discretion to impose lesser sentences, continue to dole out stern punishment when MDMA is involved. In early 2012 a federal judge for the Southern District of Texas sentenced a major Ecstasy distributor to 192 months in prison for conspiracy to possess and distribute the drug. Such sentences echo the federal government’s message that Ecstasy is not to be taken lightly.

State Regulation of Ecstasy

All states also criminalize the use, sale, and manufacture of Ecstasy. Like their federal counterpart, states categorize drugs according to their potential for acceptable use and addictive qualities. In fact, many states simply adopt the five federal "schedules" explained above. Other states amend the schedules, or create their own. All states place Ecstasy in the state's highest category, corresponding to Schedule I of the federal system.

For more information on how your state regulates the possession, manufacture, and sale of controlled substances, see Possession of a Controlled Substance and Sale of a Controlled Substance. You'll find links to state-specific articles with information on penalties for every state.

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