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Flood of Marijuana Forces San Diego-Based Federal Prosecutors to Weigh Easing Felony Minimum From 100 Pounds to 220 Pounds, LA Times Reports


February 1993

A huge surge in marijuana seizures along the California-Mexico border has forced San Diego-based federal law enforcement officials to consider raising the minimum amount warranting a federal smuggling prosecution from the current 100 pounds to 220 pounds, according to a memo provided to the Los Angeles Times (H.G. Reza, "Swamped by Smuggling: Surge in Drug Seizures Forces Border Officials to Weigh Eased Guidelines on Prosecutions," Los Angeles Times, 1/31/93, A3).

The U.S. Attorney who guides policy for the region, William Braniff, refused to confirm the proposal, but a memo from his office asked San Diego customs officials to comment on the matter, the Times reported. Under the proposed guidelines, a first-time marijuana smuggler caught carrying 220 pounds into California might face only a misdemeanor charge. Under such circumstances, the smuggler can be freed with an order to appear before a federal magistrate.

If the change occurs, it will be the second major easing of marijuana prosecution guidelines in the San Diego region in two years. In January 1991, the guidelines were eased to allow those carrying 100 pounds or less to plead guilty to a misdemeanor. Prior to that time the threshold was 50 pounds. While the revision would decrease the probability of marijuana smugglers below the 220-pound threshold being charged with a felony, other factors, including prior criminal record, would be taken into account. However, prosecutors are not bound by the guideline.

In 1992, the amount of marijuana seized at five major ports of entry along the California-Mexico border more than doubled from 1991 -- going from 673 seizures totaling 30,781 pounds to 1,299 seizures totaling 80,129 pounds. From October 1, 1992 to the third week in January 1993, customs inspectors at the five ports seized slightly more than 29,000 pounds of marijuana in 430 separate incidents, suggesting this may be a record fiscal year. The amounts seized do not include the Border Patrol, which covers expanses of the Mexico-U.S. boundary that lie beyond the ports of entry manned by U.S. Customs agents.

While federal officials in Washington, D.C. declined to comment, characterizing the guidelines as of only local significance, drug policy experts Peter Reuter of Rand and Mark Kleiman of Harvard were not so reticent. "We don't live in a world of unlimited resources," said Kleiman. "The U.S. Attorney has to decide how to best use the available resources." And Reuter commented that the proposed easing is logical based on the need for prosecutors to focus on cocaine smugglers. "All this talk about winning the war on drugs, and we're really managing a social problem," Reuter said.