Federal Judge Halves Marijuana Sentence

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A federal judge sentenced a marijuana defendant to half the requested sentence Monday, citing a changed government position on the drug.

In sentencing Scott Russell Segal to almost five years in prison for smuggling and distribution of marijuana, U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar departed from a federal sentencing guideline of 8 to 11 years and the request of the prosecutor, according to the Baltimore Sun. Bredar said the recent Department of Justice memo directing prosecutors not to target dispensaries that are compliant with robust state regulatory schemes represented a change in federal government attitude since it last amended the federal sentencing guidelines. Those guidelines, along with mandatory minimum sentences, have inflated federal drug sentences and filled prisons with nonviolent drug offenders.

Segal is the first of 22 Maryland defendants to be sentenced for their roles in a major marijuana smuggling operation. Before sentencing any of these defendants, Bredar, an Obama appointee, held a hearing Friday to consider whether marijuana defendants should receive lighter sentences in light of new DOJ guidance. That guidance called for less prosecution of state-compliant dispensaries. But the only state marijuana law in Maryland permits some medical marijuana distribution by research institutions, and does not apply to the sort of recreational distribution at issue in the case. Bredar nonetheless found that the memo signaled a broader shift in the federal attitude, and that marijuana offenses were now more akin to improperly taxing cigarettes than to heroine dealing.

“It’s a serious thing, but it’s not the same as dealing heroin,” he said. But while Bredar sentenced Segal to half of what prosecutors requested, he also rejected the home supervision sought by the defense attorney in favor of a five-year term, saying the amount of drugs trafficked in the case was among the largest he’s ever seen.

Several other federal judges have dispensed prison terms far below those in the sentencing guidelines for drug offenses, lamenting that the current scheme is “fatally flawed” and treats low-level offenders like kingpins. In Colorado, U.S. District Judge William J. Martinez even postponed sentencing a defendant subject to a mandatory minimum for cocaine possession on the chance that Congress might pass sentencing reform.