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MARCH 18, 2001
11:21 AM
CONTACT:  Federation of American Scientists
Mark Kleiman818 995-6776 or 310 206-3234;
Top Scientists Oppose Move to Punish 'Ecstasy' More Harshly Than Heroin
WASHINGTON - March 18 - Fourteen leading neuroscientists and drug policy experts are calling on the U.S. Sentencing Commission to reject a proposal to treat MDMA ("ecstasy") more severely than heroin.

The Commission will hold a hearing on the proposal on Monday, March 19, at 9:30 a.m. and is expected to vote Tuesday on the punishment increase. See

In a strongly worded statement, bristling with statistical comparisons, the group of experts said that there was "no justification, either pharmacologically or in policy terms" for the proposed increased penalties. "If the Commission were to ratify the published proposal, the...change in sentencing would...divert enforcement resources away from heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine toward MDMA. The result of such a diversion would be to make the overall drug abuse problem worse."

The statement was issued on behalf of the Federation of American Scientists by Prof. Charles R. Schuster, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse in the Reagan Administration. Signers included Dr. Jerome Jaffe, who was "drug czar" in the Nixon Administration.

For the full statement and list of signers, see

The U.S. Sentencing Commission establishes binding guidelines that control sentencing in all Federal criminal cases. In a bill passed late last year, Congress instructed the Commission to increase the sentences handed out to dealers in "ecstasy," the most popular of the "club drugs" whose use has been rising among young people in recent years.

Sentencing for drug offenses is based primarily on the weight of the drugs involved in a transaction. "Offense levels" have been established for various quantities of marijuana, and every other drug is given an "equivalency" that equates, for sentencing purposes, one gram of that drug to some number of grams of marijuana. Each gram of mescaline is treated as ten grams of marijuana, each gram of cocaine as 500 grams, each gram of heroin as 1000 grams (one kilogram), and each gram of methamphetamine as two kilograms. The offense level, combined with the criminal history of the offender, yields the sentencing range. Some drugs, including MDMA, are further subject to a minimum offense level, even for small quantities. Someone with no prior offenses who sold or gave even a single tablet of MDMA would, under the current rule, would face ten to 16 months in prison.

Currently, one gram of MDMA has an equivalency of 35 grams of marijuana. The Commission has proposed an equivalency of 1000 grams, the same as heroin. Since the weight of a typical MDMA tablet is about ten times the weight of a typical dose of heroin, that means that each dose of MDMA would have the same sentencing value as ten doses of heroin. By a similar calculation, the Commission's proposal would effectively equate for sentencing purposes each dose of MDMA to about 800 marijuana cigarettes. The Federation of American Scientists' statement calls that equivalency "grossly disproportionate" to the harms involved.

Based on comparisons between the death, addiction, disease, crime, and other damage created by heroin and MDMA, the drug expert group suggests that a ten-gram equivalency would be more consistent with the data. That would treat each dose of MDMA as the equivalent of one-tenth of a dose of heroin, or about eight marijuana cigarettes.

"We're still finding out about the risks of MDMA use, especially possible long-term changes in certain brain regions," said Dr. Schuster, a leading neuroscientist. "No one would say the drug is safe. But treating it as worse than heroin is irrational. Heroin is far more addictive, leads to far more overdose deaths, causes enormous amounts of crime, and helps spread HIV/AIDS. On any one of those dimensions, MDMA is much less of a threat to public health and safety."

Alfred Blumstein, former Dean of the Heinz School at Carnegie Mellon University and for ten years a member of the Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission, urged the U.S. Sentencing Commission to resist Congressional pressure to escalate MDMA penalties. "Setting an extreme sentence for the latest drug-of-the-year destroys the coherent sentencing structure reflecting the seriousness of the underlying crime. Creating coherence is the basic mission of a sentencing commission. It may be hard for legislators to resist the political pressure, but sentencing commissions don't have to run for re-election. Their job is to try to bring order out of the political chaos."

The F.A.S. statement points out that the effect of the proposed change would go beyond sentencing to influence the distribution of law enforcement resources, because enforcement agencies and prosecutors take sentencing as a sign of the relative importance of cases against different drugs.


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