How Federal Marijuana Prosecutions Are Different Than California Cases

Jerod Gunsberg, Los Angeles Criminal Defense Lawyer

A recent marijuana seizure off the coast of Southern California is a good example of how federal marijuana cases differ from marijuana prosecutions in California courts.  Most notably, the amount of marijuana seized by the Coast Guard was more than four tons.

Crew members on a U.S. Coast Guard cutter on Wednesday seized 8,500 pounds of marijuana worth an estimated $7.7 million.

The pot was confiscated from a Mexican “panga” boat about 160 miles west of Los Angeles by crew members of the San Francisco-based cutter Aspen, the Coast Guard said.  The drug was packaged in more than 340 bales.

You almost never see these kinds of quantities involved in state court marijuana cases in Los Angeles County Superior Court.  And this is no accident.  Federal prosecutors and federal criminal law generally focuses on big fish.  Rather than go after street-level distributors, the DEA, FBI, Coast Guard and other law enforcement agencies prefer to go after the leaders of large-scale drug conspiracies.

The Federal Sentencing Guidelines also provide extremely long sentences for a wide range of drug-related charges.  Moreover, additional penalties are imposed on people who are perceived to be leaders.  Here, for example, everyone arrested on the boast is facing a ten-year minimum sentence, plus huge enhancements for the quantity of marijuana seized on the boat.  For example, a first-time offender on the boat who was not the captain is facing up to an additional 151-188 months in prison.  The captain of the vessel as well as anyone who is charged with having greater involvement is facing even longer prison sentences.

And unlike sentences given out in some states, federal sentences cannot be reduced greatly for good behavior in prison. Generally, someone who is sentenced to 20 years in federal prison will serve at least 17 years of actual jail time.  Thus, in a case involving this much marijuana, everyone charged is facing decades in prison.

Even lawyers sometimes underestimate just how different federal court is when it comes to criminal law.  The law is different, as are prosecutors, judges, and juries.  Federal law operates by its own set of rules, which why it is critical to work with a criminal defense lawyer who is experienced in federal law and federal courts.

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