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Tougher 'Club Drug' Penalties Proposed

Chicago Tribune
By Jeff Coen
May 24, 2000

Police and prosecutors handling the investigation into the overdose death of an 18-year-old Naperville woman last week said the case has provided a wake-up call beyond the tragic demonstration that "club drugs" such as Ecstasy and its more potent cousins can kill.

DuPage County prosecutors and Naperville police said the case of Sara Aeschlimann, who authorities say overdosed May 14 on the Ecstasy-lookalike PMA, points out the limitations of Illinois drug laws.

Officials believe they know the identity of the person who provided the pills to a friend of Aeschlimann's, who eventually passed the drugs on to the Naperville Central High School senior. But as state statutes now stand, the supplier might face a relatively low-grade charge for distributing, which in some instances can result in only probation for the offender.

DuPage County State's Atty. Joseph Birkett said that it takes the sale of more than 200 grams of the active ingredient in Ecstasy, methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), to elevate the crime to the status of a Class X felony. At that level, it carries the penalty of a mandatory prison sentence of at least 6 years. The limit is the same for PMA, or paramethoxymethamphetamine, the much more powerful hallucinogen that often can't be distinguished from Ecstasy on the street.

With both substances, prosecutors said, it takes the sale of 50 grams to charge a supplier with drug-induced homicide should his customer die. Investigators have said Aeschlimann thought she was taking the popular stimulant Ecstasy, but she instead swallowed a fatal dose of PMA. Prosecutors said they believe much less than 50 grams of PMA changed hands in the Aeschlimann case.

Birkett and his Kendall County counterpart, Tim McCann, said they will propose to state lawmakers that the Class X thresholds for Ecstasy and PMA be the sale of 15 doses or "hits"--the same limit in place for LSD. They also will propose that prosecutors be allowed the option of bringing the charge of drug-induced homicide when the sale of any amount of an illegal drug leads to a fatal overdose.

The proposals appear to have the early support of key leaders in the General Assembly."It's going to be pretty hard not to support this, so we are anticipating that it will receive very serious consideration," said state Rep. Tom Cross (R-Oswego), who promised to work with House Republican Leader Lee Daniels (R-Elmhurst) to craft the legislation. "We need to send a message to the people who are selling this stuff that they are going to run the same risk associated with selling drugs like heroin and cocaine, and communicate again to kids to stay away from these substances."

Birkett said the 200-gram cutoff making the sale of the club drugs a Class X felony is an amount equal to hundreds of pills, with a value well above $30,000.

By comparison, prosecutors said, the 15 doses of LSD that put sales of that substance into Class X range would carry a street value of less than $50.

"These guys know that their exposure is much less with [Ecstasy and PMA]," said Joe Ruggiero, supervisor of the narcotics unit in the DuPage County state's attorney's office. "You're talking about dealing in large sums of money, and you could still be looking at probation. We need to eliminate the profit incentive."

McCann said he became alarmed recently when he realized the sale of moderate amounts of the club drugs is designated a Class 3 felony under Illinois law, punishable by as few as 2 years in prison. And offenders can receive probation, McCann said, which often comes into play with younger sellers who lack a prior criminal record.

"It's less serious to sell MDMA than it is to commit a burglary," said McCann, who is working with Cross to put a package together for lawmakers. "If we are going to treat these like serious drugs--and they are serious drugs--then we're going to have to have the laws standing behind us.

"The people who are selling this aren't selling thousands of dollars of it at a time," he said.

Birkett plans to meet next week with Daniels to discuss the effort. Staffers in the offices of Daniels and state Senate President James "Pate" Philip (R-Wood Dale) confirmed that the proposals are in the works and thatboth leaders are supportive of them.

Cross said he would defer to Republican leaders, but he would sponsor the packages. He said it is early in the process, but he would anticipate support from leaders in both parties for the tougher limits, particularly in the wake of Aeschlimann's death and the fatal overdose of a McHenry County teen just a week earlier.

Under the current 50-gram guideline for a drug-induced homicide charge, Ruggiero said it becomes impossible in most cases to hold drug dealers responsible for the deaths attributable to use of Ecstasy and PMA.

"With 50 grams, you're talking about 200 to 250 pills," said Ruggiero, who called the amount consistent with what a distributor might sell to a street pusher. "The only way you're going to see that charge is if [a distributor sells to] a drug dealer who overdoses on his own stuff."

Police have said Aeschlimann died after taking several white tablets with the street name "Double-stack White Mitsubishi." The pills are slightly larger than a standard aspirin, police said, and are stamped with three diamonds in a pattern similar to the corporate logo of the Japanese company Mitsubishi.

Police in McHenry County said 17-year-old Steve Lorenz took the same pills a week earlier. He died May 7, and investigators are awaiting test results that could link the two cases.

Drug experts last week warned that PMA may be gaining a foothold in the Chicago area. The substance has Ecstasy's stimulant qualities, authorities said, but raises the body's temperature and heart rate much faster.

PMA is particularly dangerous, experts said, when it is passed off as Ecstasy. A typical dose of Ecstasy that is actually PMA can be lethal.

Birkett said he hopes the changes in state law being proposed will send a clear signal that club drugs have entered the big time when it comes to prosecution.

"The people who sell these kinds of substances peddle in misery," Birkett said. "And it's the worst kind of misery: brain damage and death. This leads to unspeakable tragedies for families."