Ecstasy Panic Spreads

Since early summer, law enforcement officials and an all too uncritical press have created the elements of a full-blown drug panic. Fueled by a fearful fascination with "rave" culture and huge increases in ecstasy seizures this year, the mass media, government officials, and moral entrepreneurs across the US and Canada are mobilizing to "do something."

They drew first blood on July 31 when Kenneth Gregorio, a 23 year old student, hung himself in the Neptune, New Jersey jail after being arrested under the state's harsh new ecstasy law, pushed through the state legislature by Republican Gov. Christy Whitman in a not so deliberative three weeks in June. Under New Jersey's old law, Gregorio could have expected probation; now he faced a possible 20-year sentence, the same as if it were a cocaine or heroin offense.

"The promise of a quick thrill is not worth a lifetime of suffering and impairment," Gov. Whitman told reporters as she pushed for the bill's passage in June. The governor has not commented on Gregorio's death.

Other states and localities are moving in the same direction. In Illinois, House Minority Leader Lee Daniels (R-Elmhurst) has introduced legislation that would dramatically increase penalties for possession of middling amounts of the drug. Under Daniels' proposal, 15 grams, or about 75 tablets (worth about $600 on the near-street wholesale level) could net a 30-year sentence with a six-year mandatory minimum sentence and no possibility of probation. The current maximum sentence is two years.

That bill appears very likely to become law. As statehouse watcher Rick Miller wrote in a critical editorial in the Illinois Times, "No doubt about it, Daniel's bill will pass. The hype is just too fierce and the politics are just too good. I would bet money that there will be almost no debate before it flies out of both legislative chambers and is signed into law."

It has been helped along by police propaganda swallowed straight and regurgitated by papers such as the Chicago Tribune, which in a recent article referred to ecstasy as "a so-called designer drug linked to at least three deaths in the Chicago area," ignoring its own reporting that those deaths were in fact caused by another drug, PMA, not ecstasy.

The Tribune story quoted Master Sgt. Terry Lemming of the Metropolitan Enforcement Group of Lake County, describing the drug to a Illinois House Republican Task Force on Designer Drugs panel called to drum up support for the punitive new law. "We call it the 'kill pill,'" said Lemming.

That meeting came on the heels of two early June police pow-wows hosted by the DEA to warn police of "the ecstasy menace," as the Tribune called it. More than 140 law enforcement officers from across the state gathered in Chicago to get DEA insights on the drug and its users before heading home to spread the word.

North Carolina upped its ecstasy penalties as of January 1st. Possession of any amount of ecstasy is now a felony, and those arrested with more than 100 pills face trafficking charges with a minimum 35-month sentence.

The North Carolina legislator who sponsored the bill, Sen. Fountain Odom, told the Raleigh News and Observer he did so after hearing from concerned police officers. "They thought it was as bad if not worse than some other drugs covered" under existing laws, said Odom. "They thought folks were beginning to use it because it was not covered."

In Virginia, the ecstasy scare has become an issue in the US Senate race, where former Republican Gov. George Allen is challenging incumbent Democrat Charles Robb. Allen, who gained a reputation as a fierce "tough on crime" governor, is calling for tougher penalties for ecstasy, powder cocaine, and methamphetamine, the Roanoke Times reported. Allen chastised his opponent and the Clinton administration for lacking the "moral authority" to fight drugs.

On the local level, concern over ecstasy mixed with fear of the rave culture has produced efforts across the country to repress both. Chicago officials nixed raves in their city, as have officials in Oakland and San Francisco. Toronto is in the middle of a temporary ban on raves, while in Colorado, pressure from the Larimer County Sheriff has led to new restrictions on the dances.

Expressing a sentiment common among law enforcement officials, Sheriff Jim Alderden told the Denver Post, "The whole idea of these raves is that they're wrought with drugs."

In San Francisco, at least, the increasing concern has prompted harm reduction measures. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors in late June approved an ordinance requiring large dance clubs to provide "free, cool drinking water" as a means of preventing overheating among ecstasy users.

But even there, board members expressed concern about legitimizing drug use, prompting Dr. Marshall Isaacs, head of the city's paramedic service to comment, "Common sense is not as pervasive as we hope, or we wouldn't be here today. Gosh what a no-brainer," the free water idea is, he told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Meanwhile, police officers and politicians across the nation are taking the fight to community meetings and forums. Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch held hearings trumpeting the "new danger" in Salt Lake City and Cedar City, Utah, last month. Other meetings have been reported in locations as diverse as Huntsville, Alabama, Kansas City, Toronto and San Diego. These meetings typically feature police officers, doctors, parents, and a reformed drug user.

On the national level, legislators have introduced the Club Drug Anti-Proliferation Act of 2000, which is making its way through committee hearings. A similar measure has been introduced in the Senate. Using identical language, the bills increase penalties for dealing in ecstasy to make them equivalent to similar methamphetamine offenses.

But according to Drug Policy Foundation analyst Bill Piper, neither of those bills is likely to pass as the Congress grinds toward its fall recess. Instead, Piper said, the language of those bills has been folded in to the Comprehensive Methamphetamine Anti-proliferation Act, which remains alive.

The House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Crime held hearings on the ecstasy bill on July 15th, and again law enforcement officials conflated rave culture and ecstasy use. The committee, for instance, heard testimony from Miami police Detective Eladio Paez, a self-described expert on raves, who explained to the legislators that the rave subculture "hides behind" a philosophy of peace, love, unity, and respect (PLUR).

"But let's drop the word rave, rave is only what crack became to free-base cocaine," raved Paez in his written statement. "Rave is only a name tagged on this movement, which was previously known as underground. A movement that has evolved from a trend to mainstream, seducing a great portion of society and promoting the adoption of MDMA, Ecstasy, as the drug of choice," the confused cop continued.

Saying that "one of the greatest obstacles we face is misinformation," Paez then proceeded to provide some of his own.

"There are countless episodes of deaths caused by [small] amounts of MDMA," Paez testified. In fact, according to the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) survey of hospital emergency rooms, there were a total of 27 deaths attributed to ecstasy from 1994 through 1998.

Referring to the raves, Paez asserted that "the violence that surrounds this scene is immense."  However, Paez mentioned only the case of a pipebomb-making club owner, and even he was forced to admit that raves themselves are decidedly peaceful events.

Paez also seemed especially perturbed by the sensuality of the ecstasy experience, worrying at length that it would lead to rape, date rape, and people "no longer being able to make a decision about whether they want to have sex or not."

Later he described raves as "havens for sexual predators that enjoy the chemically induced lack of inhibitions and lovey-dovey atmosphere."

According to Philip Jenkins, a professor of history and religious studies at Penn State University and author of "Synthetic Panics: The Symbolic Politics of Designer Drugs," Paez's testimony was an example of themes that have historically emerged in other drug panics. "If you look at the first drug prohibition, opium, you find great concern about white women being seduced in opium dens," he said. "The same sort of thing occurred with blacks and cocaine in the early 1900s and again with marijuana in the 1930s."

Likewise, the fear of a new youth subculture is nothing new. "This has been going on for 150 years," Jenkins said. "Every time a new youth culture, a new music, emerges, this sort of thing happens."

Jenkins, who studies "moral panics," which he defined as occurring when reaction to an issue is massively out of proportion to the phenomenon at hand, also testified before the House panel. In his testimony, he made the case that the current wave of concern over ecstasy is becoming "a classic moral panic, based on exaggerated fears and misused evidence."

Listing some of the main themes in the media and public discourse on ecstasy, Jenkins notes that reports beginning "Law Enforcement Experts Claim" must be treated with great caution. "By definition," said Jenkins, "agencies whose primary mission is the control or suppression of illegal drugs have a vested interest in portraying those substances as threatening and ubiquitous... No agency is likely to present Congress with a statement asserting that the illegal drug menace is under control or largely defeated."

Such experts will frame the problem through the use of threatening metaphors and other rhetorical devices that often bear little relation to reality, argued Jenkins. "Rape drugs," "the crack of the 90s," "the serial killer of drugs," even "epidemic" and "addiction" are all deliberately misused, he said, to enhance the threat.

What is more, Jenkins added, these panics often carry a racial component. Historically, "substances are condemned because of their symbolic association with a particular ethnic or racial group, and striking at the substance in question is a means of stigmatizing that particular group."

In the case of ecstasy, however, the dynamic is different. In recent years, "drug policy was dominated by fear of a next crack cocaine, of a new chemical which could make white people fall prey to the problems that traditionally characterize blacks and Hispanics."

Ecstasy, like methamphetamine in the mid-1990s, has become a lightning rod for such fears. The media and law enforcement officials are adept at using racially-coded phrases to convey such latent messages. "Inner city" (black and hispanic) woes threaten "the heartland," "Main Street," and "nice suburban kids" (white).

Jenkins told the committee that the problems identified with ecstasy result primarily not from the drug itself but with its current illicit status. "Adding new legal restrictions is almost certain to make the situation worse, not better," he argued. "I propose that our emphasis should be on harm reduction, not further repression, and still less in opening a new front in the drug war."

Although Jenkins' analysis no doubt displeased the committee, even relatively friendly expert witnesses as RAND's Jonathan Caulkins counseled congressional restraint. After carefully considering the relative efficacy of various law enforcement and prosecutorial strategies to quash use of a given substance, Caulkins concluded that "if one believed that XTC is likely to turn out to be a very harmful drug (more like cocaine than marijuana in the toll it takes on the average user) and one believed that we are at the brink of an XTC epidemic -- two statements about which I am agnostic -- then it might make sense to direct more law enforcement effort at XTC. However, even in that case, it still would not make sense for that additional law enforcement effort to take the form of mandatory minimum sentences of the sort we have for cocaine and heroin at the federal level."

Which of course, is precisely what the committee is considering.

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