Sentencing Legal Montana Medical Marijuana Providers

| by Reason Foundation

By Jacob Sullum

The Missoulian reports that medical marijuana providers who were raided by the feds last year in Montana are receiving sentences somewhere between what they deserve (not time at all) and what federal law prescribes (five to 40 years in prison). Since compliance with state law is no defense in federal court, their convictions would be pretty much assured if they went to trial, where they would not even be permitted to say why they were growing or distributing marijuana. Hence all of them so far have opted for plea agreements, under which prosecutors and judges are letting them serve much less time than they would if convicted of drug offenses carrying mandatory minimum sentences:

They faced mandatory minimum sentences of at least five years in prison on some charges, with maximum penalties of 40 years and fines ranging as high as $5 million.

But the sentences handed down so far, all the result of plea agreements that saw some charges dropped, have been considerably shorter, ranging from six months to 18 months.

And in one case where attorneys agreed on sentencing guidelines of 24-30 months for each of three men, a federal judge in Helena halved the minimum, sentencing them instead to a single year. Senior Judge Charles Lovell criticized the guidelines as "excessive," making particular mention of the fact that the three men, who operated businesses in Helena and Great Falls, believed their work to be legal under state law.

As I noted in a 2009 column, complying with state law (or sincerely believing that you are) does not get you off the hook in federal court, but it can earn you some lenience at the sentencing stage compared to ordinary marijuana offenders. In 2003 U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer sentenced Ed Rosenthal, who grew marijuana for patients in Oakland, California, with the city's approval, to a day in jail (which he had already served). In 2009 U.S. District Judge George Wu sentenced Charlie Lynch, who ran a dispensary in Morro Bay, California, to a year and a day. Both judges used a "safety valve" provision for low-level offenders to avoid the five-year mandatory minimum triggered by the amount of marijuana involved.

When your crime involves nothing more than growing a plant or selling its produce, of course, your freedom should not hinge on your customer's health or a judge's sympathy. What a sad commentary on our legal system it is when prison sentences of six months, a year, or a year and a half for doing something that violated no one's rights seem almost enlightened compared to the usual practice.