6 UC Santa Cruz Students Face MDMA Felonies, but Throwing Them In Prison Won’t Help Anyone

Personal Health

Six students in their fourth year at the University of California, Santa Cruz (my alma mater), were arrested earlier this month and could face felony charges for suspected involvement in what authorities are calling an “international drug ring,” conspiring to sell MDMA (aka Molly or Ecstasy). According to the San Jose Mercury News, U.S. Customs and Border Protection worked with U.S. Postal Inspection Service’s San Jose team to confiscate 4.1 pounds of pills, which were shipped from overseas to residences throughout Santa Cruz. Officers with the Santa Cruz Police Department arrested the six 21-year-old suspects, all fraternity or sorority members, at their homes on March 4. They were each assigned bail between $5,500 to $30,000, according to Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office records. They are no longer being held.

According to the Santa Cruz Police Department spokesperson, the confiscated MDMA is worth more than $100,000. The local prosecutor, Abel Hung, has said it’s “not uncommon” for drugs to be seized in the mail after suspicions are reported.  

The suspects are all in their final year of undergrad. According to the Mercury News report, they are good students who “held leadership positions in Lambda Phi Epsilon fraternity and Alpha Kappa Delta Phi sorority.”

Now, sending and receiving pounds of illegal drugs via the Postal Service is not a wise thing to do. But you could argue that neither is dedicating the amount of tax-funded resources that have already been spent to busting a few nonviolent students on felony drug charges for a few pounds of MDMA. History, along with stacks of data, shows us that catching small-time drug deals in the act doesn’t prevent illegal drugs from circulating. That old-school war on drugs mentality has gotten us into debt and disaster and failed to halt illegal drug use. In this case, all it’s likely to do is ruin a few students’ lives. If they’re convicted and incarcerated, they’ll wind up in the severely overcrowded California prison system. We know by now that incarcerating people for nonviolent drug-related crimes is a wasteful, ineffective policy, but nevertheless it's still an option for authorities.

This is not to say these students should walk away without consequences. Most of them already face expulsion from UCSC and the general shame that comes with having one's mistake—along with names and photos—plastered all over national news. Perhaps mandatory community service, counseling and/or hefty fines are in order. But treating them like a dangerous drug trafficking ring, stamping them with lifelong felony records and throwing them behind bars probably isn’t what we should do.

The problem begins with the DEA's heavily disputed decision to make MDMA illegal in the first place. Before government officials got freaked out by what they saw as too many partiers using MDMA recreationally, and reactively demonized it as a Schedule I drug (meaning a criminal offense with "high potential for risk" and "no known medical uses"), MDMA was legal. It was first synthesized in 1912 for pharmaceutical use, then in 1965 American chemist and psychopharmacologist Alexander Shulgin resynthesized it, which inadvertantly ignited a huge popular interest in its use. By the mid-'70s, a number of therapists were exploring its apparent abilities to encourage empathy and lower stress reactions.

Since the drug promotes stimulant, euphoric and empathetic feelings, it became popular for use in recreational settings like festivals and raves. The DEA’s decision to deem MDMA a Schedule I drug actually went against its own initial recommendation to keep it legal for further research into medical use because of its reported therapeutic properties.

A movement to re-legalize MDMA has been in place ever since the 1984 decision to criminalize it. In direct response to MDMA’s Schedule I designation, Rick Doblin founded his nonprofit research and education organization, MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), in 1986. He was among the therapists who’d been using MDMA to help clients and has been fighting to re-legalize the drug for 30 years. MAPS has been working within the system on government-approved clinical trials to show scientifically whether MDMA can safely work in tandem with therapy to treat psychological issues like PTSD and anxiety. The results of the first two rounds of study have been so overwhelmingly positive they are about to enter Phase III human clinical trials. Depending on the results, MDMA could be an approved pharmaceutical medicine in the next five years.

The fact is, when popular, well-loved drugs like MDMA are criminalized and banned, people resort to illegal means of obtaining them. It is also a fact that prohibition comes with dangerous consequences—like untested, underground pills that masquerade as something they’re not, and wind up hospitalizing, or on rare occasion, killing people. 

Emanuel Sferios is leading a worldwide charge against MDMA’s prohibition, and drug prohibition in general. He founded the organization DanceSafe, which tests pills and provides a safe space at festivals and raves, to help reduce the amount of harm illegal drug use can cause. He is working on a feature-length documentary about MDMA to raise public awareness of the real risks and benefits of the drug. Sferios called the UCSC students’ case “a travesty of justice,” comparing them to “students whose lives were ruined” in a similar MDMA bust at Wesleyan University last year. After a rash of student hospitalizations due to a bad batch of what was supposed to be MDMA (but was never tested), four students were arrested on suspicion of distributing the drugs responsible. What the students had planned was to help their fellow students experiment with MDMA and other drugs, but it went awry and the media went crazy with the case. Some reports took to calling the students the Wesleyan “mafia” and the press plastered their names and images across the Internet. (For more details, read the Rolling Stone piece about the incident.)

Sferios and the DanceSafe staff responded at the time with a blog post pointing out the shortsightedness of the press and authorities.

“Reports on these issues often neglect to analyze many of the social, environmental and political factors contributing to this life-threatening issue. Without widespread implementation of proactive public health policies, such as mandating ‘Safe Setting’ standards for electronic music events, we continue to ignore many of the environmental and community level factors impacting health and safety. Rather than targeting individuals or a drug, there are pragmatic health promotion, drug education and harm reduction strategies effective at reducing risks associated with drug use.”

The post went on to note that media coverage failed to acknowledge a simple, realistic way to reduce the dangers of illegal drugs: give people avenues to test them.

“Currently in U.S. culture, there are essentially only two ways to do this. One is to purchase a home testing kit, which use various chemical reagents to gives limited but useful information on drug contents. The other way is to anonymously send a sample of the drug to ecstasydata.org. Results can be obtained on the website, usually within a few weeks. It is telling that in almost every article about the Wesleyan incident, these two harm reduction programs are not mentioned, yet they have been implemented and available for more than 16 years.”

The blog attributed the media’s decision in part to “a drug war culture that has prioritized ‘increasing risk perception’ above practical, evidence-based solutions that are effective at reducing hospitalizations, overdoses, and death.” The post concluded that arresting students was not likely to solve the issue of illegal drug use.

“As authorities continue to make arrests, it behooves us to ask whether putting more people in jail will actually reduce drug use on college campuses. We’ve never had a drug-free society; it’s unrealistic and harmful to continue to think that’s attainable. Isn’t it time we acknowledge that recreational drug use is a norm in society, and that what we should really be doing is making it safer through public health-based policies of harm and risk reduction?”

As for the UCSC drug bust, Mercury News reported that prosecutors and police are in the process of downloading what they called “huge amounts of information” from the students’ computers and other digital devices, so the county superior judge has delayed their arraignment.

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