In an exciting development for marijuana advocates, the federal US Sentencing Commission (USSC) has approved an amendment encouraging judges to exercise leniency in sentencing for prior cannabis possession offenses. This decision has been long-awaited as more and more states have legalized marijuana, signaling a critical shift in how our legal system approaches cannabis-related convictions.
The amendment was passed during a public meeting last Wednesday, and it involves a multi-part revision to the current criminal history guidelines. As part of these revisions, cannabis possession has been added as an offense that generally warrants sentencing discretion. This is a significant departure from previous guidelines, where federal judges were directed to consider prior convictions, including state-level cannabis offenses, as aggravating factors when making sentencing decisions.
The move comes in response to increased pressure from advocates who argued that a person’s marijuana record should not contribute to criminal history points that could result in harsher sentences. The revised guidelines will be sent to Congress by May 1, and if lawmakers don’t contest the amendment, the change will be finalized and become effective on November 1.
This proposal doesn’t entirely remove marijuana convictions as a criminal history factor, but it does revise the commentary within the guidelines. This means federal judges will be advised to consider “downward departures” for sentences resulting from marijuana possession offenses. “downward departure” refers to cases where federal judges impose sentences lower than the minimum recommended under current guidelines.
The amendment would recognize that simple cannabis possession “without an intent to sell or distribute it to another person” is a prime example of a case that should warrant sentencing discretion. This is a major step forward, as current guidelines on downward departures do not explicitly reference cannabis.
Earlier this year, the USSC released a report that revealed hundreds of people received more severe federal prison sentences in the last fiscal year because of prior cannabis possession convictions in states that have since reformed their marijuana laws. This highlights the long-term consequences of cannabis convictions in terms of federal sentencing.
Federal marijuana possession cases have declined since 2014 as more states have legalized cannabis and prosecutorial priorities have shifted. Additionally, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data shows that cannabis seizures fell to a record low in Fiscal Year 2022, a trend that advocates attribute to the state-level legalization movement.
With the approval of this amendment, the USSC is taking a significant step toward revising the way marijuana possession convictions impact a person’s criminal history calculation (CHC) in sentencing decisions. While federal drug cases remain prevalent in the US criminal legal system, marijuana-related convictions have been steadily decreasing as more states move to legalize cannabis.
The move toward leniency in sentencing for prior marijuana convictions is a significant milestone in the ongoing journey toward cannabis reform. The amendment not only reflects the changing societal attitudes toward marijuana but also marks a crucial shift in the legal system’s approach to these offenses. With bipartisan support in the US Senate for bills to lower mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent federal drug convictions, the winds of change are blowing stronger than ever.