Marijuana Legalization Trend Leads Federal Judge to Give Reduced Sentences

On November 1, 2013, a U.S. District Court judge in Maryland gave sentences that were up to 25% lower than suggested by the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines to 20+ defendants being sentenced in a large scale marijuana trafficking operation case, citing the national trend of states legalizing and decriminalizing marijuana and the Justice Department's recent decision not to prosecute marijuana distribution operations that are legal under state law. (U.S. v. Dayi; August 2013 DOJ Memo).

Specifically, the judge found that changes in public opinion, state law and DOJ policy alter the calculus for two sentencing factors: (1) the seriousness of the offense and (2) the need to avoid unwarranted sentencing disparities amount those found guilty of similar conduct.

As to the first, the court stated, "Ultimately, the Court finds that, in 2013, strict Guidelines sentences would overstate the seriousness of the underlying offenses and therefore fail 'to reflect the seriousness of the offense, to promote respect for the law, and to provide just punishment for the offense.'" For, "although the Guidelines for marijuana-related offenses have remained the same since 1987, state law and federal enforcement policy have changed significantly."

Regarding the second factor, the court noted, "Although the illegal enterprise in these cases is not identical to these commercial distributors [in Colorado and Washington state] — i.e., it did not comply with the laws or regulations of any state and implicated several federal enforcement priorities — it nonetheless bears some similarity to those marijuana distribution operations . . . that will not be subject to federal prosecution. The Court therefore finds it should use its sentencing discretion to dampen the disparate effects of prosecutorial priorities."

* * *

This opinion could be an important first step toward a widespread understanding by sentencing courts that changes in public opinion, law and policy surrounding the decriminalization and/or legalization of marijuana affect the traditional understanding of appropriate sentences in marijuana cases.

See Sentencing Law and Policy Blog for more.