Pennsylvania’s drug sentences can be quite harsh, but those who are convicted under the federal drug laws are likely to find themselves in prison for a longer time than they might expect. Attorney General Jeff Sessions just reversed an Obama-era policy meant to reduce the sentences for people convicted of low-level, nonviolent drug offenses. Moreover, people who legally use medical cannabis are not immune from federal prosecution.
Previous policy urged prosecutors to downplay low-level, nonviolent drug crimes
In 2013, then-Attorney General Eric Holder issued a policy memorandum asking US Attorneys nationwide to take one step that could limit sentences for street-level drug users and other minor offenders. He asked them to omit the quantity of drugs from their sentencing recommendations. This was meant to avoid triggering mandatory minimum sentences based on drug quantity.
Regardless of whether that was done, federal judges have the authority to ignore mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Holder’s policy seemed to be an effort to remind judges of that fact.
Holder had two main concerns about long sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug users, according to the Atlantic. First was that several states had legalized cannabis for recreational or medical use, potentially pitting those states against the federal government, which still considers all cannabis to be a Schedule I prohibited substance.
Second was the mass incarceration crisis, which is largely driven by long mandatory sentences for drug users — even though those sentences haven’t reduced drug use or the crime associated with it. “Long sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenses do not promote public safety, deterrence, and rehabilitation,” he commented on the 2013 memo.
Sessions policy actively hostile to drug crimes, including marijuana
Sessions disagrees. “Experts are telling me there’s more violence around marijuana than one would think and there’s big money involved,” he said in February. He has also commented that “good people don’t smoke marijuana” and that legalizing marijuana is a mistake.
He appears to believe that harsh mandatory minimums are appropriate, even for minor drug users who aren’t involved in sales or violence. “By definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory-minimum sentences,” he contends.
Under a policy memo released on Friday by Sessions, US Attorneys are to submit the quantity of drugs involved for all defendants and to seek a “reasonable sentence under the factors” considered by the federal sentencing guidelines — even if most people would find that sentence unduly harsh. The only way to avoid doing so is to seek “supervisory approval” from the Justice Department.