In most states, MDMA possession is a felony, even on first offense. In Texas, possession of less than one gram of this Schedule I drug could land someone two years in prison. In New York, possession of less than one gram—and up to five grams—could lead to five years of imprisonment. By definition, a Schedule I classification is reserved for drugs that have been deemed to have no accepted medical use.
Today, however, a growing number of medical trials are using MDMA to treat various mental health conditions. In 2016, the FDA approved a clinical trial for MDMA-based treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Organizations like Rick Doblin’s Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) have been early proponents of further exploring MDMA’s medical and therapeutic benefits. Many supporters tout MDMA as a possible treatment not just for combat veterans suffering PTSD but also those suffering depression. Underground, MDMA for years has been used by victims of sexual assault and those with anxiety; early adopters of MDMA-based psychotherapies have noted improvement. It’s doesn’t always bring about full healing, but it’s certainly helped people with diverse medical and emotional needs.
For three decades, MDMA’s scheduling has been based on outdated medical information, a failed War on Drugs and bullshit scare tactics, but tides are turning. The U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) has just begun a two-year process to reexamine MDMA’s classification, as well as the scheduling of other novel psychoactive substances (NPS). The Drug Enforcement Administration relegated MDMA to Schedule 1 in 1985, ignoring that it had been used as therapeutic treatment for years prior. Now, with public consciousness shifting, the USSC has a chance to see the light—if it chooses to do so.
The history of MDMA scheduling is fraught with abuse of power: DEA Administrative Judge Francis Young recommended that the drug be categorized as Schedule III, which deems drugs as medically useful with low abuse potential. When this got back to John Lawn, a DEA administrator, he defied the judge and put MDMA in Schedule I.
MDMA has remained there for 32 years, putting thousands of people in prison and rendering medical researchers unable to study it. Some believe discrepancies between federal judges’ rulings and the current scheduling are the motivation behind reconvening the commission.
In the therapy community, there’s already a shift toward seeing the drug as viable medicine instead of a mere neon club pill. Still, USSC is expected to only marginally improve the drug’s existing scheduling classification, if at all. Although evidence of the failed drug war is steep, the USSC historically prefers gradual change. It has never been compelled to make radical declarations that drastically change the American drug landscape.
With speculation that President Donald Trump will appoint Congressman Tom Marino as drug czar, the federal drug agenda altogether looks bleak. Marino is notoriously harsh on medical marijuana, voting against allowing Veterans Affairs doctors to prescribe medical marijuana to their patients. He came out against the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment, which would have made it easier for state medical marijuana dispensaries to operate without fear of federal legal trouble. With Jeff Sessions heading the Department of Justice and brilliantly proclaiming that “good people don’t smoke marijuana,” it looks like drug hysteria will not let up anytime soon—at least not on the federal level yet. But there is progress on decriminalizing MDMA use.
Politicians and bureaucrats alike have almost always preferred drug war propaganda to facts, punitive sentences over lenient ones and a tight grasp on the choices of individuals in a country that supposedly values freedom. But it’s going to be hard to keep MDMA in the dark for long and, as with marijuana, people will begin to see it for what it is––a medicine with limitless potential to help the most vulnerable in our society.
Liz Wolfe is managing editor of Young Voices. She lives in Austin, Texas, where she writes about criminal justice and libertarianism. Follow her on Twitter: @lizzywol.