Sentencing under Federal Laws

Federal marijuana laws remain harsh. People found guilty of federal drug violations can face long mandatory sentences, loss of property and other consequences that can be felt for life. Despite widespread medical use by millions of Americans, federal law still considers cannabis a dangerous illegal drug with no acceptable medicinal value. Medical issues cannot be used as a defense in federal court, though defense attorneys should attempt to raise the issue whenever possible during trial as it may be considered a mitigating factor at sentencing. Federal law applies throughout Washington D.C. and the United States, not just on federal property.

The penalties for federal marijuana offenses are determined by sentencing guidelines, enacted by the United States Sentencing Commission, and mandatory sentencing laws, enacted by Congress. The Sentencing Commission was created in 1987 to combat sentencing disparities across jurisdictions. The current mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana offenses were enacted in a 1986 drug bill. Federal sentencing guidelines take into account not only the amount of cannabis involved in the arrest but also the past convictions of the accused. Not all cannabis convictions require jail time under federal sentencing guidelines, but all are eligible for imprisonment. Any medical cannabis patient convicted and sentenced to federal prison will serve a minimum of 85% of that sentence.

In United States v. Booker (2005), a Supreme Court decision from January 2005, the court ruled that the federal sentencing guidelines (as outlined above) are advisory for judges and not mandatory. Under current sentencing guidelines, the larger the amount of cannabis involved, the more likely the person is to be sentenced to imprisonment. Even for a defendant with multiple prior convictions, being charged with low-level offenses may lead to probation for the entire sentence of one to twelve months, with no prison time required. Possession of over 1 kg of cannabis with no prior convictions carries a sentence of six to twelve months with a possibility of probation and alternative sentencing. Over 2.5 kg with no criminal record carries a sentence of at least six months in prison; with multiple prior convictions, the recommended sentence might be up to two years to three years with no chance for probation.

In addition to the sentencing guidelines, there are statutory mandatory minimum sentences enacted by Congress that require judges to impose prison time for certain marijuana offenses. These mandatory minimum sentences remain in effect after United States v. Booker. There is a five-year mandatory minimum for cultivation of 100 plants or possession of 100kgs, and there is a 10-year mandatory minimum if the defendant also has a prior felony drug conviction. Cultivation or possession of 1000kg or 1000 plants triggers a 10-year mandatory minimum, with a 20-year mandatory sentence if the defendant has one prior felony drug conviction, and a life sentence with two prior felony drug convictions.

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