Ecstasy Laws

The basics of ecstasy possession charges and penalties.

By , Attorney · University of Houston Law Center
Updated February 16, 2023

Both state and federal laws make it illegal to possess ecstasy in any amount. The legal consequences of breaking these laws can be quite significant. This article examines the definition of ecstasy, as well as the penalties and possible defenses for possession offenses.

What Is Ecstasy or MDMA?

Ecstasy is the street name for 3,4- methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA). Other common street names include E, X, Adam, and Molly. It also includes substances that have been mixed with MDMA and unknown groups of drugs. Typically, ecstasy is used in a pill, tablet, or powder form.

Ecstasy is a psychoactive drug, which alters moods and distorts perceptions, while also providing the user with euphoria, increased energy, and elevated sensual awareness. Short-term adverse effects of ecstasy use can include rapid heartbeat, muscle tension and stress (including jaw clenching and teeth grinding), blurred vision, chills, and dehydration, as well as confusion, depression, and severe anxiety.

Is Ecstasy Illegal?

Yes. Both federal and state laws make the possession, manufacture, and distribution of any amount of ecstasy for any purpose illegal throughout the United States, although penalties vary greatly by jurisdiction.

The federal Controlled Substances Act ranks drugs from Schedule I to V—placing the most dangerous drugs in Schedule I and the least dangerous in Schedule V. Ecstasy is a Schedule I drug because of its high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical uses, and lack of accepted safety for use even under medical supervision. Most states also place ecstasy under Schedule I of their drug schedules.

Criminal Charges for Possession of Ecstasy

In ecstasy possession cases, the prosecutor must prove the defendant knowingly possessed the illegal substance. Possession can be "actual" or "constructive."

To do this the prosecutor must show that the defendant had knowledge of the drugs under their control. Say, for example, a person accidentally grabs someone else's gym bag that looks identical to their own. That bag contained a bottle of ecstasy pills, resulting in the person's arrest. Unless other circumstances suggest the situation wasn't an accident, the prosecutor wouldn't have a case because the person had no knowledge of possessing the drugs.

The prosecutor also needs to show the defendant's actual or constructive possession of the drugs. Possession refers to physical control over an item (actual possession), as well as legal control over an item (constructive possession).

  • Actual possession is just as it sounds—having physical custody of a drug (say in a coat or pants pocket).
  • Constructive possession, on the other hand, is broader and includes situations where the defendant is in a position to exercise ownership, access, or control over the drug. For instance, an individual who checks a suitcase at the airport that is discovered by customs agents as containing ecstasy could be arrested for having constructive possession of an illegal drug. Or an individual driving a car could be charged with constructive possession for ecstasy found in a passenger's purse.

Possible Defenses to Ecstasy Possession Charges

Defendants facing ecstasy charges under state or federal law have several defense strategies available to them.

Actual innocence. Defendants charged with an ecstasy-related crime have the usual defenses available to all criminal defendants, such as "Someone else committed this crime," or "The alleged conduct did not occur."

Unlawful search and seizure. A common defense in drug possession cases includes asking the court to exclude evidence of the drugs at trial based on an unlawful search or seizure by police. Without evidence of the drugs, a prosecutor's case might fall apart, resulting in a reduction of charges or a dismissal altogether. Defense teams do this by scrutinizing and calling out faulty or suspect police methods used in gathering or handling the evidence.

No knowledge of the drug. Defendants can try to show the jury that they did not have knowledge of the drug being in their possession. For example, if a hitchhiker gets a ride from a passing car and the police locate a bottle of ecstasy pills under the hitchhiker's seat, the defense will argue the defendant had no knowledge of the bottle hidden under their seat.

No intent to control drugs. A conviction for possession requires the prosecutor to prove that the defendant had the intent to control the ecstasy, even if it wasn't in their actual possession. A defendant who can show they had no power or intent to control the drug may be acquitted. For instance, if after picking up the hitchhiker, the driver stops off at a corner and buys a bottle of ecstasy tablets, the hitchhiker, although aware of the presence of the drug, never intended to come into possession of it and had no power or control over it.

What Are the Federal Penalties for Possession of Ecstasy?

When federal prosecutors charge ecstasy possession in federal court, a guilty defendant with no prior drug-related convictions faces up to a year in prison and a fine of at least $1,000 for a first offense.

A person convicted of ecstasy possession after a prior narcotics conviction in either federal or state court is subject to 15 days to 2 years in prison and a minimum fine of $2,500. Two or more prior narcotic convictions can lead to a sentence of 90 days to 3 years' imprisonment and a fine of at least $5,000.

The term of imprisonment and the amount of the fine may be affected by the quantity of the drug seized. Having possession of a large amount of ecstasy, along with other indicators, may support tougher charges and penalties for possession with intent to sell. Those who manufacture ecstasy can also face more stringent criminal charges and penalties.

Is Possession of Ecstasy a Felony Under State Law?

States also punish the possession of ecstasy, and the penalties vary by state. The severity of the penalty is determined by whether the prosecutor charges the defendant with a felony or a misdemeanor. This charging decision is based on the amount of ecstasy, the defendant's prior record, and the circumstances surrounding the offense. Like federal law, most states also categorize ecstasy as a Schedule I drug.

In California, for example, simple possession of ecstasy for personal use constitutes a misdemeanor for most defendants, punishable by up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Possession with intent to sell raises the severity to a felony, and upon conviction, can result in a minimum sentence of two years in prison and a substantial fine.

Texas makes possessing any amount of ecstasy a felony. A small amount (less than one gram) subjects the defendant to a state jail felony conviction, resulting in 180 days to 2 years' incarceration and a $10,000 fine, while a massive amount (400 or more grams) carries life in prison.

(Cal. Health & Safety Code §§ 11377, 11378; Tex. Health & Safety Code § 481.115; 21 U.S.C. § 844 (2022).)

Talk to a Lawyer

If you're facing a charge for possession of ecstasy or another drug-related offense, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area as soon as possible. A lawyer can evaluate the strength of the prosecution's case against you and help develop any defenses that might apply to the unique circumstances of your case. A knowledgeable attorney can also advise you on how the law will apply to your set of facts.

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