Pubdate: Wed, 21 Mar 2001
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Copyright: 2001 San Francisco Chronicle
Contact:  901 Mission St., San Francisco CA 94103
Author: Mark Martin, The San Francisco Chronicle


Recommended Terms For Mood Drug Longer Than For Selling

Penalties for selling and importing ecstasy, the hip,
mood-altering drug some medical researchers argue could have
beneficial uses, will be tougher than those for dealing powder cocaine
under new federal guidelines approved yesterday.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission approved an emergency amendment that
will make sanctions for dealing ecstasy akin to selling harder drugs.
The commission sets sentencing guidelines for federal judges.

The crackdown was imposed by Congress, which last year ordered the
commission to toughen ecstasy laws in light of studies showing the
growing popularity of the drug.

The move was condemned by some Bay Area drug policy experts but hailed
by drug enforcement officials.

"Ecstasy is the drug of the new millennium," said Jocelyn Barnes, a
spokeswoman for the San Francisco office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement
Agency. Barnes said her department is upping its efforts to combat
ecstasy, which has grown from an obscure party pill to an increasingly
popular drug among teens.


Ecstasy, called MDMA by scientists and the "hug drug" by users, was
part of some psychiatric treatment plans before it was banned in 1985.
It is most commonly associated with all-night rave parties, and recent
studies have shown growing use among teens and college students.

The commission approved new rules that could send a person caught
selling 200 grams -- or about 800 pills -- of MDMA to prison for five
years. A person would have to be caught selling 11,000 pills to
receive the same sentence under current guidelines.

In comparison, a person caught selling 100 grams of heroin would
receive five years in prison under sentencing rules, while someone
caught dealing 500 grams of powder cocaine would also face five years
of incarceration.

The new guidelines will go into affect May 1. Congress could act to
make the emergency rules permanent.


Politicians and drug enforcement officials have become more concerned
with ecstasy during the past two years as its use has

The drug is usually imported from Europe. U.S. Customs officials
seized more than 9 million MDMA tablets last year, compared to 750,000
in 1998. One of the largest hauls occurred at San Francisco
International Airport in May, when drug agents discovered 490,000
pills in boxes coming from Paris.

Surveys show that while teenagers' use of most drugs is leveling off,
ecstasy is gaining in popularity. More than 8 percent of American high
school students said they had tried the drug last year, according to a
University of Michigan report.

While government-sponsored research has shown that extended use of
ecstasy can cause brain damage in mice, some medical researchers argue
that the drug's potential benefits have not been thoroughly explored.

And a Bay Area drug policy expert said stiffening sentences for
ecstasy dealers is the wrong approach to ending abuse of the drug.

Marsha Rosenbaum, director of the San Francisco office of the
Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation, said harsher sentences could
flood the market with cheaper-to-make ecstasy substitutes, some of
which have led to teen deaths in Chicago and Florida in the past two

"All this does is increase the risk of negative consequences," she
said. "What it's not likely to do is curb usage."Chronicle wire
services contributed to this report.
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