Coming sentencing changes could help Oregonians charged with drug crimes

The United States incarcerates a higher proportion of its residents than any other industrialized nation in the world. According to the U.S. Attorney General, American prisons hold nearly a quarter of the world's incarcerated population, despite the fact that the United States comprises just 5 percent of the world's total population.

Many of those imprisoned in the United States are serving lengthy sentences for drug charges; about half of all inmates in the federal prison system are serving sentences for drug crimes. The draconian approach to drug crimes is not only unfair to those convicted of nonviolent drug crimes, it is also costly to taxpayers and has not been shown to have any compelling deterrent or law enforcement effect.

Change is needed, particularly as attitudes toward drugs shift in Oregon and in a number of other areas across the U.S. Marijuana, for instance, in one form or another is increasingly becoming available through legitimate channels. On March 13, Attorney General Eric Holder endorsed a proposal that would reign in sentences for drug trafficking and provide some relief for those facing drug charges.

Recommendation to reduce mandatory minimums as attitudes toward War on Drugs change

Based on Justice Department figures, the proposed amendment to federal sentencing guidelines would result in an average decrease of 17 percent in the length of sentences imposed on convicted drug offenders. One specific example is the proposed reduction for either crack possession or cocaine possession of 28 grams and 500 grams, respectively: the current mandatory minimum is set at 78 months, whereas under the new guidelines it would be reduced to 63 months.

The U.S. Sentencing commission may vote on the new drug sentencing guidelines as soon as April. In the meantime, Attorney General Eric Holder has instructed his prosecutors to refrain from pushing for longer sentences if drug crime defense attorneys ask judges to impose light sentences for their clients under the current sentencing structure.

The proposed changes come amidst evolving attitudes toward many types of drug use. While medical cannabis has been legal for quite some time in Oregon, it is just now that that the medical marijuana retail industry is emerging from the gray market. One March 3, a new program was launched to regulate the retail sale of medical marijuana in Oregon, and during its first week, 281 dispensaries began the registration process, according to The Oregonian.

Intensive efforts are underway by advocacy groups to bring the question of marijuana legalization for recreational use to Oregon voters in November of 2014. If legalization efforts are successful, Oregon would join Washington and Colorado as the third state to legalize recreational marijuana use under a tightly controlled regulatory structure. Federal authorities have already indicated that they will not pursue prosecutions against marijuana users or dispensers whose practices are sanctioned by state law.

Drug charges are still a threat: Call an Oregon criminal defense attorney

The new approach toward drug crime sentencing is good for government finances and fairer to those facing drug charges. But, while it is a step in the right direction, even after the implementation of reduced sentences, a drug crime conviction could mean years behind bars.

If you are facing drug charges, do everything you can to get the lightest sentence possible: contact an Oregon drug crime defense attorney and stage a strong legal defense.