Congress considers another bill forbidding online drug discussions

Monday, June 26, 2000

Alan St. Pierre did a double take when he first saw the Ecstasy Anti-Proliferation Act of 2000, a bill designed to strengthen penalties against those who deal in the illegal designer drug and those who tout its benefits online.

After all, St. Pierre’s group, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, has been battling against a similar bill, the Methamphetamine Anti-Proliferation Act of 2000, for nearly a year. The latter bill would ban the posting of drug recipes and certain online chats about illegal drugs.

“In some ways, it seems that they took the exact same bill (and) replaced methamphetamine with ecstasy,” said St. Pierre, a co-director of NORML. “It’s virtually the same bill.”

While his group doesn’t have a position on ecstasy — it advocates major changes to the laws governing the cultivation and use of marijuana — St. Pierre said it has a problem with the ecstasy bill.

“It really has the same difficulty as the other bill does in the way it limits discussion and the exchange of information and ideas regarding Schedule I drugs,” he said. “Congress’ interests here seem to be the same: censoring and diminishing individuals’ ability to have discussion.”

The ecstasy bill surfaced last month in both the Senate and the House. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., says the bill is needed to curb what he says is the growing popularity of the drug with young people.

“Ecstasy is a proven killer, and it is on the loose,” Graham said when he announced the bill last month. “We need to shatter the dangerous myth that this risky designer drug is safe for consumption.”

The Ecstasy Anti-Proliferation Act would strengthen penalties for those caught trafficking in the drug and would provide money for educational programs.

It also would require all federal agencies to post anti-drug messages on their Web sites.

But the bill also forbids people from touting the drug on Web sites and advertising dance parties where it can be obtained.

The bill’s language mirrors that of the Methamphetamine Anti-Proliferation Act, which passed the Senate last year and is currently before the House Judiciary Committee.

The methamphetamine bill, sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, would ban the publishing of drug-making instructions. One provision of the bill would make it a felony to “teach, demonstrate or distribute any information pertaining to the manufacture of a controlled substance” such as those classified by the government as Schedule 1 drugs.

Free-speech advocates denounced the version of the methamphetamine bill that cleared the Senate, saying it would make it illegal to discuss legal uses of marijuana, such as hemp clothing, and would outlaw other discussions, including those on medicinal marijuana and medical concerns about other Schedule I drugs.

And they’ve come out against the ecstasy measure, saying it too would restrict legitimate discussion about the drug on the Internet. They say the bill, if passed, would make it illegal to offer life-saving tips to those who misuse drugs.

The House Judiciary Committee has delayed voting on the methamphetamine bill, presumably to address the censorship concerns and to wait until its Subcommittee on Crime approves the ecstasy bill. But a committee spokesman wouldn’t speculate on future action on either measure.

In the meantime, the Subcommittee on Crime completed a hearing on the ecstasy bill on June 15. Bill sponsors brought in witness after witness to denounce the designer drug and to make pleas for new drug legislation.

David McDowell, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, said the drug MDMA, the clinical name for ecstasy, has become particularly popular in U.S. dance clubs and at parties called raves.

“It is understandable why so many adolescents may find raves and the club drugs used there, so appealing,” he said. “Ecstasy, in particular, is alluring and seductive.”

But he added that such drugs likely cause permanent damage to the nervous system.

“The extent and consequences of this damage may not become apparent for decades,” McDowell said.

Laurence DesRochers, an emergency room physician at Community Medical Center in Toms River, N.J., said his hospital and local prosecutors sponsored lectures, meetings and a half-hour television program to educate the community about such drugs.

“Although our efforts have been great, the message is not reaching the victims,” DesRochers told committee members. “Each weekend throughout the summer and even on some weeknights the victims of these drugs continued to come.”

Instead, DesRochers said efforts to educate the public about the consequences of drugs are offset by Internet sites detailing the “good” effects of the drugs and how safe they are.

“These chat rooms and newsgroups continue to be the propaganda machine in this battle,” he said.

But Philip Jenkins, professor of history and religious studies at Penn State University, urged the committee to refrain from reacting to a “moral panic.”

“Moral panics are socially damaging because they divert resources from more serious dangers, and also because they can result in over-sweeping laws which threaten to ruin the lives of countless relatively harmless individuals,” Jenkins said.

He suggested that any perceived problems with the drugs could be resolved under existing laws.

“Adding new legal restrictions is almost certain to make the situation worse, not better,” Jenkins said. “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.”

NORML’s St. Pierre says he understands the effort to combat drug use.

“But as the saying goes, ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions,’” he said. “This is another glaring example of government overreaching.”