Sentences in federal cases are based on guidelines that take into account drug quantities and other circumstances in advising judges on the appropriate prison time. Those rules already recognize that dealing heroin is much more serious than dealing marijuana.
For example, all else being equal, a defendant convicted of dealing between one and three kilograms of heroin would face between nine and 11 years in prison, as would someone who sold between 1,000 and 3,000 kilograms of marijuana.
At the same time, a cigarette trafficker would have to evade $100 million in taxes to face that length of prison sentence — a vastly greater weight in tobacco.
The guidelines are advisory and judges can take other factors into account when deciding a sentence. Bredar said he would take particular note of two of those factors when sentencing the defendants: He wants to make sure that defendants around the country are being treated equally and that the sentences reflect the seriousness of the offense.
In filings and in person in court, attorneys for the defendants in the case urged Bredar to depart from the usual guidelines in this case.
Nicholas J. Vitek, one of them, said that the guidelines issued two decades ago for marijuana had not been based on sound evidence regarding the dangerousness of the drug. He called the rules "completely useless."
He added that the new Justice Department policies marked an important shift.
"It is a recognition, perhaps implicitly, that marijuana is not as dangerous as the government said it was," Vitek said.