U.S. District Court Judge William H. Pauley III on Friday rejected the federal sentencing guideline for MDMA, or Ecstasy, ruling that the guideline was based on outdated science and punished ecstasy-related crimes far too harshly than was justified.
Ecstasy has been used by 14.2 million people in the United States alone, according to the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, and is known for increasing feelings of empathy and social connection.
The American Civil Liberties Union presented the federal judge with scientific evidence from expert witnesses during a two-day hearing in December, claiming that the sentencing guidelines were flawed.
The decision came in the case of Sean McCarthy, who pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to possess and distribute Ecstasy. He was sentenced to 26 months in federal prison as opposed to the 63 to 78 months recommended by federal guidelines.
“We commend Judge Pauley for recognizing that the 10-year-old sentencing guideline for Ecstasy is based on flawed assumptions and repudiated science,” said Scott Michelman, staff attorney with the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project. “Unnecessarily punitive drug sentencing guidelines play a major role in exacerbating our nation’s costly problem of overincarceration, and we urge the U.S. Sentencing Commission to undertake a thorough and scientifically grounded re-evaluation of all drug guidelines.”
In 2001, United States Sentencing Commission determined that penalties for Ecstasy should be greater than penalties for cocaine. The Commission claimed that Ecstasy was neurotoxic, marketed to youth more aggressively than cocaine and was both a stimulant and a hallucinogen, while cocaine was only a stimulant.
Pauley accused the Commission of “opportunistic rummaging” of facts and ruled that the Commission’s analysis was “selective and incomplete,” noting that Ecstasy is “one of the least addictive drugs,” unlike cocaine.
“The Comission’s statement that cocaine is only a stimulant, while MDMA is both a stimulant and a hallucinogen, is without factual support and largely irrelevant,” he wrote in his opinion.
Pauley also noted that the distribution and trafficking of Ecstasy was not associated with substantial violence, unlike other illegal drugs.
Although scientific studies have found that Ecstasy can harm neurons in the brain, he said the Commission should not have focused on a single health factor and ignored a multitude of others.
“The harshness of the Ecstasy guideline affects hundreds of defendants each year in the federal system,” said Michelman. “We are gratified that courageous and thoughtful jurists are addressing this problem, and we hope today’s decision will encourage more judges to take a hard look at this issue.”
Eric W. Dolan
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