Federal Judge Rejects Harsh Marijuana Sentencing Guideline


Credit: Torben-Bjorn-Hansen-CC-BY

A U.S. District judge in Maryland rejected federal guidelines as outdated when ruling on a large-scale marijuana trafficking case yesterday.

Judge James Bredar doled out relatively soft sentences of less than five years in federal prison for Scott Russell Segal and 18 months Steven Madden. According to federal guidelines for marijuana trafficking crimes, the former could have faced up to 11 years and the latter 41 months.

Segal's and Madden's outlooks were not so optimistic when they were convicted as major players in a drug trafficking ring in January. In a 250-agent investigation, federal authorities seized "30 cars, 60 pounds of marijuana, $300,000 in cash and 35 guns," and the district court later moved to seize an additional "$10 million, eight properties, 22 bank accounts, 24 cars, and the assets and inventories of three businesses," according to the Baltimore Sun.

The case began when the drug czar was still denouncing legalization, months before the Obama administration's claimed pivot on marijuana crimes and mandatory minimum sentencing. Furthermore, Bredar himself is apprehensive about legalization. During sentencing, he explained his view that "regardless of what the people of two states have decided," marijuana is not a legal substance. He also "rejected the comparisons to possession cases, saying the amount of drugs being trafficked in Segal's case were among the largest he's ever seen."

Nevertheless, in making his ruling, Bredar recognized that federal courts are operating with outdated guidance on handling marijuana crimes. "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," he said, further explaining that his decision came "not just by what is occurring around the country in terms of legalization, but more by the government's response to it."

The Sun explains that this is just one example in a growing trend of rethinking and relaxing marijuana-related convictions:

More judges across the country are imposing shorter sentences in marijuana cases, especially after the Justice Department issued its new guidelines on prosecutions earlier this year, said Mona Lynch, a criminology professor at University of California, Irvine. Segal's sentence is "not unusual," she said.

"There's very few people remaining who see the drug guidelines as being a sane and workable system because the sentences are so high and driven by weight instead of individual culpability," Lynch said.


"You're going to see, going forward, a lot of federal judges saying that if the Department of Justice is having a different view of how to enforce marijuana laws, then the judges should also think differently about their discretion in imposing sentences for marijuana," [former assistant U.S. attorney Kwame] Manley said.