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October 29, 2013

Do nationwide reforms now call for federal judges to sentence below the guidelines in all marijuana cases?

The question in the title of this post is one that I have been thinking about for quite some time, but it has now taking on some real-world salience in the wake of a couple hearings and sentencing decisions by a federal district judge in Baltimore.  Two recent reports from the Baltimore Sun, headlined "Federal judge weighs shift on marijuana sentences," and U.S. judge says government view on marijuana raises 'equal justice' issue" (available here and here, respectively), suggests that at least one federal district judge believes the answer to the question in the title of this post is yes. Here are details drawn from both press reports:

A federal judge said Friday he would consider lighter-than-normal sentences for members of a major suburban marijuana smuggling organization — the latest fallout of the drug's legalization in several U.S. states.

U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar noted that federal authorities announced this summer they would not pursue criminal cases against dispensaries and others legally handling marijuana in states where the drug has been legalized.

Bredar, who called the hearing to discuss the issue, said it might be more appropriate to compare the defendants in the Maryland marijuana case to smugglers of improperly taxed cigarettes rather than treat them as hardened drug traffickers. "It's a serious thing," Bredar said of the group's operation, "but it's not the same as dealing heroin."...

Friday's hearing involved defendants convicted of running a smuggling operation that imported large quantities of marijuana to Howard and Anne Arundel counties from California and New Jersey and laundering the proceeds through an eBay business located in a Jessup warehouse. Twenty-two of the 23 people charged in the case have been convicted; charges against one were dismissed.

Earlier this month, Bredar canceled all of the scheduled sentencings in the case and announced his plan to hold a hearing on changes in Justice Department policy that allow marijuana handlers such as dispensaries and cultivation centers to operate openly in states where marijuana is legal....

At issue in the Maryland case, Bredar said, is whether that shift means the government has decided the drug is less serious now than when federal sentencing guidelines were formulated. "Has the federal government changed its enforcement policy?" Bredar asked.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea L. Smith said the topic was an appropriate one to discuss, but argued that marijuana remained a serious drug and noted that the case involved guns and violence. She suggested it might be more appropriate to compare marijuana dealing to trafficking in illegally obtained prescription pain pills rather than to cigarette smuggling....

And on a sliding scale of regulated substances, Bredar said, he thought marijuana had moved away from hard drugs and toward tobacco.

Sentences in federal cases are based on guidelines that take into account drug quantities and other circumstances in advising judges on the appropriate prison time. Those rules already recognize that dealing heroin is much more serious than dealing marijuana.

For example, all else being equal, a defendant convicted of dealing between one and three kilograms of heroin would face between nine and 11 years in prison, as would someone who sold between 1,000 and 3,000 kilograms of marijuana. At the same time, a cigarette trafficker would have to evade $100 million in taxes to face that length of prison sentence — a vastly greater weight in tobacco.

The guidelines are advisory and judges can take other factors into account when deciding a sentence. Bredar said he would take particular note of two of those factors when sentencing the defendants: He wants to make sure that defendants around the country are being treated equally and that the sentences reflect the seriousness of the offense....

A federal judge in Maryland handed down lighter prison sentences Monday to defendants in a huge marijuana distribution case, saying that such offenses are "not regarded with the same seriousness" as they were just a few decades ago.

U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar said the federal government's response to marijuana legalization in some states — notably the decision not to pursue criminal cases against dispensaries and others handling the drug in accordance with those states' laws — raises concerns of "equal justice."

In handing down a nearly five-year sentence, Bredar said he felt Scott Russell Segal had committed a significant crime for his role moving hundreds of kilograms of marijuana and laundering the proceeds.

But the judge used his discretion to ignore federal guidelines, which equate marijuana with harder drugs like heroin and called for Segal to receive eight to 11 years in prison. A second defendant also got a shorter sentence than called for in the guidelines. "It's indisputable that the offense is not regarded with the same seriousness it was 20 or 30 years ago when the sentencing guidelines … which are still in use, were promulgated," Bredar said.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.

October 29, 2013 at 11:45 AM | Permalink

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"U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar said the federal government's response to marijuana legalization in some states — notably the decision not to pursue criminal cases against dispensaries and others handling the drug in accordance with those states' laws — raises concerns of "equal justice."


Correct!

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | Oct 29, 2013 5:26:01 PM

|Do nationwide reforms now call for federal judges to sentence below the guidelines in all marijuana cases? |

Yeah Prof.,

Every single one, regardless of the severity & number of the crime(s).
[mindless liberal "justice" demands it]

Posted by: Adamakis | Oct 30, 2013 3:02:52 PM

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