There’s finally some good news coming from the U.S. Department of Justice: In remarks made to the American Bar Association’s annual meeting, Attorney General  Eric Holder announced that the federal government would not pursue mandatory minimum sentences for certain low-level drug offenders.

The mandatory minimums have resulted in thousands being locked up for extended periods of time, sometimes for very small amounts of a controlled substance. Nearly half of all people in federal prison are there due to a drug-related offense.

The mandatory minimums are draconian. For example:

  • If arrested and convicted in federal court for distribution of any controlled substance to a person younger than 21 or near a school, you will face at least a year in prison, even if you had no idea the school was there.
  •  If you are convicted of having a growhouse with 100 or more plants of marijuana, you will, under the guidelines, face at least five years in prison — even if you were growing the marijuana to sell at a legal medical marijuana dispensary.
  • If a person is convicted of selling another person any Schedule I or II drug or synthetic drug, and the buyer overdosed and was seriously injured or died, the minimum sentence is 20 years — more than a fourth of the average person’s life.

It’s unclear what the full impact of Holder’s announcement will be. He said, in the remarks, that the changes will apply to “low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels.” It’s unclear the extent to which the DOJ will take that. While it’s clear leaders in international cartels would not be included, there are many gray areas.

For instance, many kids who grow up in difficult neighborhoods are recruited into local street gangs at a very young age, sometimes against their will. Are these young people to still face mandatory minimums, or did “gangs” refer to larger ones, like the Crips?

In Nevada, we have legalized medical marijuana, but it remains illegal under federal law. It’s not clear whether “large-scale organizations” would refer to medical marijuana growhouses and dispensaries, operated legally under state law.

Hopefully, the application will be broad. Regardless, if you face federal drug charges, it’s important to hire a skilled Las Vegas drug defense attorney. Even without mandatory minimums, punishment for federal charges can be harsh, and you’ll want a strong defense.

The decision is made by executive order, which can be rescinded by Holder or the next occupant of the Attorney General’s Office. Many of the changes can be made permanent if Congress passes the bipartisan Justice Safety Valve Act, by Senators Patrick Leahy and Rand Paul.

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