MAPS, ACLU Persuade Federal Judge to Use Science to Challenge Harsh Ecstasy Sentencing Guidelines

Originally appearing at SANTA CRUZ, CA — On July 15, 2011, U.S. District Judge William Pauley III sentenced a defendant charged with selling Ecstasy to 26 months in prison, less than half the 63 to 78 months recommended by current sentencing guidelines. This watershed event took place because the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which represented the defendant, presented scientific evidence challenging the sentencing guidelines as being promulgated in a time of irrational fear over the risks of MDMA, based on claims made at the time that are unsupported by current scientific evidence.* Previously, on May 19, 2011, Judge Pauley ruled that Ecstasy-related crimes are punished far more harshly than is justified by currently available scientific evidence about the risks of the drug. This ruling is the first of its kind regarding Ecstasy, yet it mirrors similar judicial rulings that have successfully challenged the sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine as also being too harsh and unsupported by current scientific evidence. In 2001, the U.S. Sentencing Commission enacted a set of guidelines requiring judges to treat a single gram of Ecstasy as if it were 500 grams of marijuana for the purposes of determining the severity of a sentence for federal drug offenses involving Ecstasy. At the public hearing prior to the Sentencing Commission’s determination of the Ecstasy sentencing guidelines, MAPS Executive Director Rick Doblin, Ph.D., and other experts presented testimony, but that testimony was ignored. The ACLU challenged the Sentencing Commission’s standard as unfair and requested that the judge undertake a rational reconsideration of the guidelines. Judge Pauley’s ruling sharply criticizes the commission’s “opportunistic rummaging” and “selective and incomplete” analysis of the scientific data that led to the creation of the guidelines, and took into account new evidence—including data from a recent National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)-funded study by Harvard psychiatrist John Halpern, M.D.—showing that long-term recreational Ecstasy use did not cause clinically significant cognitive damage. MAPS brought the idea for the Ecstasy neurocognitive study idea to Dr. Halpern and invested $15,000 in a pilot study. Dr. Halpern then used the data from the pilot study for his successful NIDA grant application for which he was awarded $1.8 million over five years. MAPS also consulted with ACLU lawyers on the case and shared its review of the entire scientific literature about Ecstasy and MDMA, including data from its international series of Phase 2 pilot studies into MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for subjects with chronic, treatment-resistant posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to Scott Michelman, staff attorney for the ACLU Criminal Drug Law Reform Project, the ruling is a step in the right direction. He commented, “This ruling demonstrates the importance of thoroughly reviewing the empirical basis underlying each of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines for drug offenses, to make sure the Guidelines reflect the current state of scientific knowledge.” *Note: MAPS’ clinical research studies use pure MDMA manufactured in government-licensed facilities. Drugs bought and sold on the black market as “Ecstasy” may or may not contain MDMA. SOURCE Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) The ACLU recently won a major victory in a legal case challenging the federal sentencing guidelines for Ecstasy-related crimes as having been made in a time of irrational panic over the dangers of the drug. On July 15, a defendant charged with distributing Ecstasy was sentenced to 26 months in prison–less than half the time recommended by current sentencing guidelines. MAPS contributed to the victory by testifying about the current state of evidence about the risks of recreational Ecstasy use, which have recently been discovered to be significantly lower than previously believed. The outcome of the trial indicates that the science of psychedelics can have real, positive implications for health, policy, and human rights. The press release was picked up by numerous media outlets, including the Herald Online,, The Sacramento Bee,, and more.