As Colorado and Washington await clarity from the federal government about how it will react to new laws legalizing recreational marijuana, federal crackdowns of medical marijuana distributors are continuing to take their toll. While the nation’s largest medical marijuana dispensary survived the latest move to shut it down, the one-time owner of several dispensaries in Los Angeles received one of the harshest sentences yet – ten years in prison – after he declined to take a plea deal.
In sentencing Aaron Sandusky Monday for acts that are legal under California law, U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson said:
In this case, as the defendant was warned, the court’s hands are tied … Whether you agree with the defendant’s position or not.
Sandusky’s harsh sentence under the mandatory federal drug sentencing scheme is a stark reminder that, while users of medical marijuana have largely escaped federal prosecution and crackdowns, some distributors have not in many of the 18 states where they are legal. It is also representative of the inflexible and draconian mandatory minimum sentences imposed in drug cases. Individuals sentenced for drug crimes make up almost half of the ever-increasing federal prison population.
Judge Anderson also suggested in his ruling that Sandusky “built a veneer of legitimacy around his criminal enterprise using his customers’ good-faith search for pain relief,” though it is not clear that he was out of compliance with California law, which allows licensed medical marijuana dispensaries.
At trial, Sandusky’s lawyers were precluded from making the argument that Sandusky was complying with state law, and had relied upon statements by President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder that they would not prioritize prosecution of individuals complying with state medical marijuana laws. Prosecutors also discouraged the jury from making a “moral” decision about the case by engaging by what is known as jury nullification. The jury instructions even included the sentence: “Congress has defined marijuana as a schedule I controlled substance, making it illegal under federal law. You must disregard any state or local law to the contrary.”
Just last week, a medical marijuana grower in Montana, Chris Williams, avoided a mandatory minimum sentence of 80 years in prison by agreeing to a last-minute deal to serve a minimum of five years. Most others who have been prosecuted under federal law for running dispensaries in states with medical marijuana laws have taken plea deals that allowed for shorter sentences.