But are you sure it’s worse than nothing?

Glenn Reynolds relays an account of what seems to be a real outrage. A DEA agent apparently used the newly-passed RAVE Act (now formally the Illicit Drug Antiproliferation Act) to intimidate an Eagles’ lodge in Montana to cancel an anti-drug-war fundraiser planned for its premises. Glenn cites this incident as vindication for his belief that the RAVE Act was a bad idea from the beginning. (And the silence of the press — a Google News search comes up absolutely dry — is really astonishing.)

Maybe Glenn is right: perhaps the new law was a bad idea. Certainly, it gives lots of discretionary power to a Justice Department whose current leadership has consistently abused the powers entrusted to it, as when it tried to use the DEA’s power to revoke the licenses that physicians need to prescribe controlled substances to nullify Oregon’s assisted-suicide law. If the DEA really did what it has been accused of doing in this case — which seems plausible, though at the moment the only available accounts are from sources hostile to the DEA — that can’t really be called surprising.

But the target of the law — the growing use of MDMA (“ecstasy”) — is a genuine, and potentially large, problem, and the law has, in my view, a better chance of doing something about that problem than most drug-policy initiatives have of reaching their targets. Here’s why I think so:

Starting in the mid-1990s, MDMA emerged rather suddenly from the alphabet soup of recreational chemicals to become what is now probably the second-most-widely used purely illicit drug, behind cannabis, with a market in the several-to-ten-billion-dollar range, way behind cocaine (at around $25 billion) but on a par with cannabis and heroin. If we look at initiations — people trying a drug for the first time in a given year — MDMA, at 1.9 million, is second only to cannabis (2.4 million) and way ahead of everything else, including even the non-medical use of prescription drugs. The current MDMA initiation rate is higher than the cocaine initiation rate ever was: cocaine peaked at about 1.5 million new users per year.

Even more troubling, what used to be a distinctively “European” MDMA use pattern — multiple doses, every night, every weekend — has become much more common here, and that more dangerous pattern is closely associated with “raves”: all-night dance parties with a mostly youthful clientele and a set of musical styles conducive to trance-dancing.

MDMA is a highly reinforcing drug; it induces in many users a strongly positive emotional state that lasts for several hours. But it has one very peculiar characteristic: its capacity to produce that state typically wears off with repeated use. Virtually any drug will create a tolerance: that is, over time higher doses will be needed to generate the same biological effects. But the diminished effects of MDMA cannot be recovered by using more of the drug: that’s the peculiar characteristic.

That peculiarity led Jerome Beck, Deborah Harlow, and their colleagues, who studied MDMA use in the late 1980s, to predict that its use would be self-limiting. And it’s still quite possible that the dominant use pattern for MDMA will turn out to be low-dose (a single pill of about 100 milligrams per session) and low-frequency (no more than a handful of times per year). There’s reason to hope, though nothing like a guarantee, that such occasional low-dose use will prove to have only limited risks, or that it could be made fairly safe with a few simple precautions.

But while MDMA’s special emotional charge wears off, its purely stimulant effects do not, though they are subject to normal tolerance formation. Therefore, someone who wants to dance all night may find that the drug continues to be rewarding long after someone using it under other circumstances would have gotten bored with it. That’s what explains the association of frequent high-dose use with rave activity. Using three or five or eight E pills per night, three nights per weekend, almost every weekend, is likely to be bad news, though right now no one can say for sure just how bad the news will turn out to be. (That high-dose, high-frequency users are subject to a midweek depression is fairly well established; the extent, duration, and clinical significance, if any, of the associated cellular-level changes in the brain remains a matter of heated scientific controversy.)

That being so, neither the fact that the RAVE Act will tend to discourage some socially responsible actions by rave operators (such as providing “chill-out” rooms, encouraging the distribution of information about the risks of MDMA use and how to limit them, and allowing on-site pill-testing) nor the risk that the law will be abused, as it seems to have been in the Montana case, suffices to convince me that it will do more harm than good.

I can imagine a radically different approach to MDMA policy, based on harm reduction via dose and frequency limitation, that might have better overall results, but I can’t imagine getting such a policy adopted in the current political climate. If the practical alternative to the RAVE Act was drug policy as usual — a little more law enforcement, longer sentences for dealers, and inventing fancier lies to tell the children — at least the RAVE Act stands out from its background as having some chance of not being a complete waste of effort.

The language of the law isn’t a masterpiece of legislative draftsmanship, and the process by which it was passed was less than edifying. But it has, I would argue, some measurable chance of reducing the size of what otherwise seems likely to be a serious problem. I’d like to hear what its critics propose as an alternative, or at least a serious argument that the Act as passed is worse than nothing. The bare assertion by Glenn’s friends at the Center for the Advancement of Capitalism that “The RAVE Act has no valid law enforcement purpose” fails to convince.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com