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.

Bredar's decision reflects an evolving attitude toward marijuana and how shifting state laws are compelling federal authorities to adapt. The judge had called for a broader discussion on the matter last week and said it might be time to compare marijuana trafficking to smugglers of improperly taxed cigarettes.

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.

The guidelines are based on a variety of factors including prior offenses and the defendant's role. 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.

Kwame Manley, a former assistant U.S. attorney now in private practice, also said judges are more frequently sentencing defendants to less time than what's called for in the guidelines for marijuana cases.

"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," Manley said.

But Michael Gimbel, the former drug czar for Baltimore County and now an independent consultant, said views on personal use of marijuana should not become confused with how to address more widespread distribution.

"Drug dealing has nothing to do with the debate about pot," he said.

Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said prosecutors would continue to go after large-scale distributors like those charged in Segal's case but have no plans to appeal Bredar's sentences. He said judges have different views but that prosecutors would remain consistent in their approach.

"We have pretty clear guidance from the attorney general to continue to pursue cases involving drug distribution in violation of state law," Rosenstein said.

Segal, 32, of Middlesex, N.J., is one of 22 people 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. According to his plea agreement, Segal stored drugs in his home and helped transport them.

His attorney, David Fischer, said in court that while marijuana remains illegal in Maryland, state judges have been sending a message about the seriousness of such drug crimes with lighter penalties for offenders. He asked that Bredar sentence Segal to home detention, or a "short period" of incarceration.

Bredar, who once worked as a federal public defender and prosecutor in Colorado and was nominated to the bench by President Barack Obama in 2010, 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.

"No state has legalized or seems ready to legalize the sort of actions these defendants were involved in," he said.

"If what your client and co-defendants did wasn't a significant violation of federal drug laws, then marijuana is effectively legal," Bredar said. "And it's not, regardless of what the people of two states have decided," he added, referring to Washington and Colorado, where voters approved measures to permit the recreational use of marijuana.

Still, Bredar sentenced Segal and one of his co-defendants, 43-year-old Steven Madden, to prison terms that are about half as long as prosecutors were seeking. And he argued that the factors to be considered in sentencing have been changed "not just by what is occurring around the country in terms of legalization, but more by the government's response to it."

Madden, the second defendant who played a peripheral role in the organization, was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison, less than the 33 to 41 months called for in the guidelines. Madden said he had sold about 50 pounds of marijuana on the side of his flea market business and knew of the larger operation.

He choked up while addressing Bredar, saying he had overreached in an attempt to make ends meet as relatives battled health issues. "I didn't want to be a failure," he said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea L. Smith argued at a hearing last week that marijuana remained a serious drug and noted that the case involved guns and violence. In a memo filed with the court, Smith acknowledged an internal Justice Department debate about when to pursue cases but argued that once prosecutors move forward, the cases should be treated the same as before.

Public attitudes toward marijuana are rapidly evolving, and a recent Gallup poll found for the first time a majority of respondents — 58 percent — favor legalizing it.

In Maryland some prosecutors are already experimenting with alternative approaches to marijuana possession cases, diverting defendants into programs where they can complete community service and avoid a conviction.

Maryland took a small step this year toward less restrictive marijuana laws by allowing the drug's use to alleviate certain medical conditions. The law restricts such use to tightly regulated programs operated out of academic medical centers. Broader decriminalization laws have failed to pass.

Baltimore Sun reporter Carrie Wells contributed to this article.

jfenton@baltsun.com