A ruling handed down by a federal court this week strongly suggests that recent changes in state laws governing marijuana are now being reflected in how federal drug laws are enforced and will further change the conversation about marijuana use in America.
U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar acknowledged that new reality when he sentenced Scott Russell Segal this week to nearly five years in prison for his role in smuggling hundreds of kilograms of marijuana to Howard and Anne Arundel counties from California and New Jersey. Under federal sentencing guidelines Mr. Segal could have received eight to 11 years behind bars.
But the judge used his discretion to cut that penalty nearly in half, saying the federal government's response to the legalization of marijuana in some states had raised concerns of "equal justice" if federal law mandated significantly harsher punishments than state laws for the same crime. In doing so he clearly had in mind the Justice Department's recent announcement that it would not seek to block state laws legalizing marijuana for medical or recreational use.
Thus while he acknowledged the gravity of Mr. Segal's crimes, Judge Bredar also noted that "it's indisputable that the offense is not regarded with the seriousness it was 20 or 30 years ago" when the guidelines were written. Since that time 18 states, including Maryland, and the District of Columbia have passed laws decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana for medical purposes. Two more states, Colorado and Washington, recently legalized the drug for recreational use as well.
Taken together, these developments have made it clear that marijuana policy in this country increasingly is being driven by state legislatures rather than by lawmakers in Washington. Judge Bredar's ruling is just the latest evidence of that momentous shift, which is sure to have important legal, social and public health and safety consequences for the country, not all of them predictable.
Meanwhile, the federal government obviously will have a continuing interest in how the policy debate unfolds. Even states that legalize marijuana sales can be expected to limit minors' access to the drug, for example, similar to the restrictions that presently apply to alcohol and tobacco. Today's pot is a lot stronger than the weed smoked by the flower children of the 1960s, and relatively little is known about it's long-term effects. At the same time, federal officials are the only ones who can promulgate uniform national standards to protect consumers against tainted or counterfeit products, as well as rules against false or misleading advertising by marijuana growers and processors.
Moreover, the federal government will continue to bear responsibility for seeing to it that any relaxation of state marijuana laws doesn't open the door for criminal gangs to profit from smuggled contraband. The increased revenue state lawmakers anticipate from taxing marijuana in states where the drug is legal would quickly evaporate if a flourishing black market were allowed to continue.
Judge Bredar briefly wondered aloud whether underground sales of marijuana were comparable to the black market in untaxed cigarettes in terms of the seriousness of the threat posed to society. But the truth is that, unlike black market cigarettes, the gangs that deal in illegal marijuana have gotten a lot more violent in recent decades, a function of the widespread continuing limited supply and high demand for pot as well as of the easy availability of guns. That's a direct consequence of the drug's prohibition, just as the gang wars of the 1920s and '30s were a result of attempts to ban legal sales of alcohol. Part of the wisdom of Judge Bredar's ruling lies in the recognition that we don't want to repeat the same mistake again.
Overall, the court's decision was a reasoned attempt to take into account all these factors in order to balance the strict requirements of the law against changing public perceptions of marijuana's impact on public health and safety. Ultimately some new consensus about the benefits and dangers of legal marijuana will emerge and be codified in a coherent body of law. But we are not there yet, and until that happens cases like this will provide the forums through which our national conversation on the subject is conducted.