The U.S. Sentencing Commission tripled Penalties for possession of ecstasy in the United States in November, 2001. Now, dose for dose, ecstasy is more heavily punished than heroin. The danger here the average party kid or drug dealer is that it is much easier to be slapped with a mandatory 6 month minimum sentence for possession with intent to distribute. Possession of 40 pills of ecstasy is enough for 6 months in jail. Before, it took possession of 114 pills to land a minimum sentence.

The way mandatory minimums work is that there's a certain mandatory minimum sentence imposed for possession of 1 kg of marijuana or more. Under 1 kg of marijuana, there's no mandatory minimum sentence for first time offenders. It's just 0-6 months in jail. Above 1 kg, the sentence increases as the amount in possession increases, since possession of more and more drugs shows intent to distribute or import. An equivalency chart equates amounts of every other drug and precursor to amounts of marijuana.

From page 5 of the Sentencing Commission's Congressional Report
one gram of cocaine is equivalent to 200 grams of marijuana,
one gram of ecstasy is equivalent to 500 grams of marijuana,
one gram of heroin is equivalent to 1000 grams of marijuana.

Before the amendment, one gram of ecstasy was only equivalent to 35 grams of marijuana.

Since the amendment changes the equivalency from 1 g MDMA = 35 g marijuana to 1 g MDMA = 100g marijuana, sentences are essentially tripled. For those trafficking 800 and 8000 pills, you used to only get 1-2 and 3-4 years mandatory sentences. Now, you get 5 and 10 years in prison.

And for the average small time dealer, it's much easier to be slapped with a minimum sentence. So in court, no matter what the kid says to the judge or what the judge may think, the judge must impose at least 6 months of jail time. One main argument against mandatory minimums is that the legislature is removing power from judges to rule on a case-by-case basis.

According to The Sentencing Commission's Congressional Report, the rationales behind the amendment were,

  1. the need for aggressive law enforcement action with respect to offenses involving MDMA
  2. the dangers associated with unlawful activity involving such substances, including
    1. the rapidly growing incidence of abuse of MDMA and the threat to public safety that such abuse poses;
    2. the recent increase in the illegal importation of MDMA;
    3. the young age at which children are beginning to use MDMA;
    4. the fact that MDMA is frequently marketed to youth;
    5. the large number of doses per gram of MDMA;
    6. any other factor that the Commission determines to be appropriate.

The 20 page report goes into details about these reasons in the last few pages. The Commission thinks it's a problem, but that's because some of the sources they cite include NIDA-funded studies, senate hearings and news stories with sensational-sounding headlines.

The whole focus of the amendment seems to be taking the DEA's relationship between the number of pills handled and functional role in the distribution network, and pinning appropriate sentences to each person in the network. So...

Dealers at a rave get 6 months for handling 40 to 100 pills,
Local Distributors get 5 years for handling 500 to 1,000 pills,
Higher Distributors get 10 years for handling 5,000 to 10,000 pills,
Importers get severe sentences for handling 50,000 to 100,000 pills.

This amendment by the U.S. Sentencing Commission came from an emergency, temporary action on March 19, 2001. Two weeks later, the commission amended the action to make it permanent. Increases in sentences went into effect on May 1 and those increases were made permanent on November 1 of last year. Interestingly, this was the same way that ecstasy was classified as a Schedule I drug and made illegal - through an emergency action that was later amended to be permanent.
Federal equivalency table for drugs and precursors -
Federal sentencing table -
US Sentencing Commission Report to the Congress: MDMA Drug offenses, Explanation of Recent Guideline Amendments -

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