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Federal Marijuana Trafficking Cases Dropped Yet Again Amid State Legalization Push, U.S. Sentencing Commission Report Finds



Federal marijuana trafficking cases declined yet again in 2023 as more states enacted legalization, newly released data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) shows.

The USSC 2023 Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics, published on Tuesday, reveals a continuation of a trend that’s been observed over the past decade, with cannabis-related prosecutions dropping precipitously amid the state-level reform push and shifting federal enforcement priorities.

The report this year doesn’t specifically cite the number of marijuana trafficking cases in 2023, but it dipped again compared to the previous 2022 low of 806, according to a chart that shows the trend. In comparison, there were roughly 5,000 cannabis cases in 2013.

Meanwhile, cases involving fentanyl and powder cocaine increased again last year.

Drug cases overall made up 29.9 percent of the federal criminal caseload, the second-largest category after immigration-related offenses.

Legalization advocates have long argued that providing access to regulated marijuana markets for adults would drive down demand for unlicensed products, translating into fewer arrests for illicit production and sales.

This new USSC report is the latest to support that idea by showing the gradual decline in federal cannabis trafficking cases as more states have enacted legalization.

The report also shows that marijuana cases carry the lowest sentences among the six drug types that USCC tracks, with the average sentence in a cannabis trafficking case being 37 months, compared to 100 months for methamphetamine and 72 months for fentanyl, for example.

Meanwhile, new federal guidelines from USSC advising judges to treat prior marijuana possession offenses more leniently officially took effect last November.

Federal judges have historically been directed to take into account prior convictions as aggravating factors when making sentencing decisions in new cases. But as more states have moved to legalize marijuana, advocates have pushed for the updated guidelines to make it so that a person’s cannabis record doesn’t necessarily add criminal history points that could lead to enhanced sentences.

USSC released a report last year showing that hundreds of people received more serious federal prison sentences in the last fiscal year because of prior cannabis possession convictions in states that have since reformed their marijuana laws.

With respect to federal marijuana cases, data from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) that was released last year shows that cannabis seizures fell to a record low in Fiscal Year 2022, continuing an enforcement trend that advocates attribute to the state-level legalization movement.

Arrests for marijuana made up nearly a third of all drug arrests in the U.S. in 2022, according to a FBI report released last October. As with the 2022 report, however, inconsistencies in the data and recent changes to the agency’s methodology make it difficult to draw year-to-year comparisons or meaningful conclusions about cannabis and broader drug enforcement trends.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) also says it made fewer marijuana arrests in 2022, even as the number of cannabis plants eradicated by the agency grew.

report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released in 2022 also paints a clearer picture of who is getting caught up in enforcement activities. At checkpoints across the country, agents are mostly seizing small amounts of marijuana from American citizens rather than busting large shipments from international cartels.

In another report from 2022, the Congressional Research Service said that state-level legalization, combined with international reform efforts, has reduced demand for illicit marijuana from Mexico. Congressional lawmakers have also cited the impact of legalization on transnational drug cartel operations.

Also, consistent with other studies and federal reports, the analysis revealed a significant decline in cannabis seizures at checkpoints overall since 2016. In 2016, there were 70,058 pounds of marijuana seized at checkpoints by Border Patrol, compared to 30,828 pounds in 2020.

Amid this decline, President Joe Biden has twice issued mass pardons for people who’ve committed federal marijuana possession offenses, and the Justice Department has been actively providing certificates to clemency recipients.

The pardon certification process comes as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is considering a recommendation from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to reschedule cannabis to Schedule III that stemmed from a review that Biden initiated in conjunction with his initial marijuana clemency move.

Importantly during this year’s election, a recent survey found that voters’ impression of the president jumped a net 11 points after hearing about the possible implications of the rescheduling review—and that includes an 11-point favorability swing among young voters 18-25 who will be critical to his reelection bid.

DEA, for its part, has made clear that it reserves “final authority” in the cannabis scheduling matter.

Last October, advocates and lawmakers who support cannabis reform marked the one-year anniversary of Biden’s first mass marijuana pardon and scheduling directive by calling on him to do more—including by expanding the scope of relief that his pardon had and by expressly supporting federal legalization.

Hawaii Senate Passes Marijuana Legalization Bill

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