High Anxiety: Irrational Fear of Ecstasy, Not Real Danger, Inspires Measure
By Daily Journal – Thursday September 5 2002
Copyright: Daily Journal
During the 1980s, in every election year, the U.S. government enacted new anti-drug laws. But in the 1990s, as the costs from the election-year drug-war pandering began to come due, we thankfully did not build on those mistakes. This year, the big drug fear is ecstasy (MDMA). The U.S. Senate seems to be rushing toward enacting an election-year anti-ecstasy bill. The bill is called the Reducing Americans Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act of 2002 (S2633) (the RAVE Act).
The RAVE Act already has passed the Senate Judiciary Committee – without any hearings and without a recorded vote. Its sponsor, Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE), the author of many of the extreme drug-war measures of the 1980s – wants the full Senate to vote by unanimous consent, avoiding a recorded vote. A brief look at this bill indicates that it has not received careful attention; it is based on exaggerated fears of ecstasy and is sloppily written.
Deaths due to ecstasy are rare. The federal government reports a total of 27 deaths over five years from ecstasy. (In contrast, 85 people died in 1999 from taking acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol.) Many ecstacy deaths could have been prevented by controlling two major factors that contribute to injuries or fatalities in conjunction with the use of MDMA: heat and dehydration. If concert venues had increased ventilation to reduce heat and provided easy access to water, it is quite likely that some of these deaths would not have occurred. Unfortunately, the RAVE Act would make these problems worse, as such actions would be used to prove a violation of the law.
MDMA “episodes” at hospital emergency rooms are still near almost trivial levels. According to the government, there were 636 MDMA-related emergency room episodes – and 2,214 in which MDMA was used in combination with other drugs. This is out of a total of 554,932 emergency room drug episodes in 1999.
Some anti-drug officials are exaggerating – either by accident or deliberately – ecstasy’s lethal consequences. The Orlando Sentinel analyzed a report on deaths due to ecstasy issued by the “drug czar” of Florida, James McDonough, and a former top aid to Gen. Barry McCaffrey at Office of National Drug Control Policy. The article found almost unbelievable exaggerations; persons who actually died of cancer, elderly persons dying in nursing homes and toddlers dying in hospitals were reported as ecstasy deaths. Even people who died after being hit by a car were among those counted, even though these people were known to have died of other causes.
The British House of Commons appointed a special committee to study the problem of drug abuse in Britain. Great Britain is a useful source of information, since ecstasy has been common there since the early 1980s. The term “rave” originated in Britain, and Britain now has two decades of experience with widespread use of ecstasy.
The report noted that the Police Foundation Independent Inquiry (a recent study by the independent Police Foundation, a charity chaired by Prince Charles) consulted members of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Faculty of Substance Misuse about the relative harmfulness of controlled drugs and found that ecstasy “may be several thousand times less dangerous than heroin … there is little evidence of craving or withdrawal compared with the opiates and cocaine.”
The RAVE Act re-enforces America’s mistaken approach to controlling ecstasy by relying on law enforcement rather than on effective education. An important article in the Journal of the American Medical Association highlighted this criticism of the law enforcement-dominated approach and recommends honest education, not scare tactics.
JAMA notes: “ehavioral researchers are recommending control strategies that may seem antithetical to ever-expanding law enforcement efforts. Instead of focusing on eradication and punishment, these social scientists take another tack: they encourage harm reduction that acknowledges the realities of Ecstasy.” JAMA recommends truth, not fear – education not incarceration.
The RAVE bill itself is profoundly overbroad in its sweep. It provides for severe criminal penalties for conduct carried out exclusively by another person. Business owners should be concerned about this bill, especially landlords or property owners. The bill makes landlords, theater owners and operators – indeed, any property owner – criminally and civilly liable for the conduct of other people on their property if that other person uses illegal drugs. The bill would assign liability to anyone who has a relative who uses illegal drugs in their home or on their property.
The bill creates a new crime requiring only a state of mind of “knowingly” for the conduct of those who “open, lease, rent, use or maintain any place, whether permanently or temporarily, for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing, or using any controlled substance.” According to this provision, if a landlord knowingly (the phrase “intentionally” is not included in this new crime) made a lease with someone or knowingly gave someone the right to enter their property, then the property owner could be liable.
This new crime creates an impossible burden for any property owner. Property owners allow people on their land to visit, establish homes, spend the night, camp, shop, swim, bicycle and listen to music; sometimes people who enter the premises use drugs. Owners can maintain some level of security, but they can never stop most persons who enter from smoking pot or taking illegal pills if those persons desire to do so and sneak the drugs in. Certainly the government cannot expect theaters, campgrounds or homeowners to institute the kind of security that we see at the airports or the border – and people still smuggle in drugs at those locations. Landlords and property managers are not police. And that is the way it should be in a free country.
Considering the ease with which someone could innocently run afoul of this new law, the penalty, of up to 20 years in prison – more than for being a drug trafficker in many instances – seems excessively harsh. The bill also authorizes the government to charge the property owner civilly, using a much lower standard of proof, denying accused property owners the right to trial by jury and obtaining a civil fine of $250,000.
There are very serious collateral penalties that exist with drug offenses like those created by the RAVE Act. These include: criminal forfeiture of property, a presumption against bail and the use of such a conviction as an aggravating factor to authorize the death penalty if, on some future occasion, the accused is charged with homicide. Not only would a person convicted not be able to acquire a firearm, but also, because it is a serious drug offense, the person would face a mandatory 15 years for a gun violation.
We have seen how unexamined drug scares and election-year drug legislation can do more harm than good. Do we really want to repeat that mistake again? Hopefully, the Senate will ignore Biden and not enact a law that we will regret later.