Friday, June 26, 2015

U.S. v. Jefferson (9th Cir. June 26, 2015)

Headline:  George Jefferson gets a decade in prison.  He's no longer movin' on up.  But he is going to the big house.

Okay, so it's not Sherman Helmsley's George Jefferson.  But he is nonetheless a guy who's similarly feeling the sting of a particular social structure.

Mr. Jefferson drove a vehicle that contained some methampetamine into the U.S.  He admitted that he knew his vehicle contained some drugs, but thought it was a small amount of marijuana.

Too bad.  The Ninth Circuit follows binding precedent that says that it doesn't matter whether you knew the type of the drug or the quantity.  You're still subject to the 10-year mandatory minimum.  If you thought that Jimmy had put a single joint of marijuana in your glove box but it was actually a kilo of meth, you automatically get the full ten years.  Mandatory.  See ya in a decade, Joint Boy.

Judge Fletcher doesn't like that rule, and would overrule it.  So writes a separate concurrence from Judge Wardlaw's opinion in which he expressly says so.  But it's nonetheless the law.  Sorry, Mr. Jefferson.

Two other tangential points.  First, many of us are fairly well-aware of the crack/powder sentencing disparity with respect to cocaine, as well as what had been done to try to alleviate that problem.  But I was surprised to discover today (as a result of Judge Wardlaw's opinion) just how methampetamine is treated.

You can import up to 50 kilos of marijuana, and there's (1) no mandatory minimum at all, and (2) a statutory maximum of 5 years.  So marijuana is (not surprisingly) not huge deal.  Cocaine is, to be expected, treated differently.  Importing 500 grams of cocaine -- a little over a pound -- gets you a mandatory minimum of 5 years.  Not surprising.

So where does methamphetamine fall along this line?  About twenty times worse, by my count.  Since 50 grams of meth (as opposed to 500 grams for cocaine) gets you a mandatory minimum of ten years (as contrasted with 5 for cocaine).  So a tenth as much gets you double the time.

To an unsophisticated person like myself, this seems strange, if not crazy.  Both cocaine and meth are "bad", but I would have thought that people thought cocaine was (maybe just a little) "worse".  Or was at least worse on the "importation" front; we want to stop importing cocaine that would essentially cut off supply, since there's little to no home-grown cocaine, whereas there's plenty of domestic meth, so we'd presumably not feel as much of a need for a hammer on the importation front for the latter.

So I was surprised to see essentially a 20:1 ratio.

Now, I'll forthrightly admit that I'm a novice on this front, having never used either of the relevant drugs.  So it may perhaps be that it takes more cocaine to put you where you want to be than it does meth.  My unsophisticated brain thought they were both basically powders and a line was a line and hence basically equal.  Thank God for the internet, of course.  Though there's definitely no standard resource here, the sketchy places I've looked tend to suggest that maybe typical doses of cocaine are indeed a bit higher than typical doses of methampetamine.  Though not at all like 20:1, and it also very much depends on how you use (e.g., snorting vs. IV).

And, again, on this front, I'm totally talking out of my butt.

Still, 20:1.  Treating cocaine more favorably than methampetamine.  That's surprising to me.

Second point.  I was born in 1966, so I distinctly remember the efforts in the 1970s to get people to use the metric system.  Meters, liters; all that good stuff.  It was a total failure.  People just didn't at all want to have to convert, say, 55 miles to hour to whatever kilometers per hour that might be.  So the effort failed notwithstanding the indisputable value it would have to move our measuring systems to those used by the rest of the world with which we trade.

In that light, isn't it somewhat surprising how the metric system has totally caught on in the much more informal area of drugs?  You ask for a "kilo" of cocaine, not a "pound".  Even unsophisticated users who barely made it through junior high school know what a "gram" of methampetamine entails.  The standard measure of heavy drugs is the metric system.

Isn't that weird?

(Mind you, it also makes it very easy for even casual observers to figure out who the drug dealers are; say, in high school.  When I was a kid, all I had to do to figure out if a guy was "in the know" was to ask him how many grams were in a pound.  Any denim-jacket wearing dude who knew the answer to that question was a guy who either sold himself or who knew plenty of people who did.)

It's also a bit funny because my sense is that for marijuana, it's different.  There, in general, we use the English system; an ounce, an "eighth" (of an ounce), a pound, etc.

(Mind you, in the modern "medical" marijuana industry, there's been a demonstrable shift towards grams, so even here, the metric system's making far more inroads than it ever did in modern culture.  Two liter bottles aside.  Plus, I admit that the English system still has some use on the "hard drugs" side.  "Eightballs" of cocaine, for example; e.g., an eighth of an ounce.  Still, I think the metric system dominates on the non-marijuana side of things.)

My only way of potentially reconciling the difference between the use of the metric system for "real" drugs and the English system for marijuana is that maybe it arose because the former is generally imported whereas there's a large home-grown market for the latter.  So maybe we followed "kilos" when we discussed, say, cocaine and heroin because that's the measure that the producers of those products used, and we dutifully followed along.  Even though in "normal" international trade we expected the use of our own system.  Whereas in marijuana the presence of a nontrivial domestic production market let us indulge ourselves in the use of our own system.

That's not a perfect explanation, since meth has a big home-grown component too, and there's a fair amount of imported marijuana.  But it's at least a shot.  Otherwise I'm not at all sure why drug users have a much better knowledge of the metric system-- or at least weights and measures therein -- than, I'd estimate, 90 percent of "average" Americans.

Americans:  We like our speedometers in English, but our drugs in metric.