Last week Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo encouraging federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty for certain drug trafficking offenses.
Federal law allows for capital punishment in drug trafficking cases involving murder or homicide. But the attorney general also specifically called out one provision that allows for capital punishment in cases involving “extremely large quantities of drugs.”
That provision, 18 U.S.C. § 3591(b)(1), lays out quantities of drugs that could trigger capital punishment even in the absence of any accompanying violent crime. Experts say that no cases have ever been tried under this provision, and that it’s almost certain that it would be declared unconstitutional if any such case were to be appealed to the Supreme Court.
“The Supreme Court has never upheld the death penalty for a crime that did not involve death,” said Tamar Todd, director of the Office of Legal Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that advocates for decriminalizing drug use.
There is a federal capital punishment on the books for large quantities of marijuana — a substance with no known lethal dose that is legal for recreational use in nine states plus the District. The threshold is huge — 60,000 kilograms (132,278 lbs.), or 60,000 plants, enough to fill several shipping containers.
The quantity-based capital punishment provision is of particular concern to state-legal marijuana businesses. The plant remains illegal under federal law, regardless of what state laws say. Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, a trade group, said in an email that “there are many state-licensed cannabis businesses cultivating 60,000 plants or more.”
But again, experts say it’s unlikely that any individuals trafficking in any drug, much less state-legal marijuana, would be tried or sentenced under the quantity provision of federal law.
“No one has been sentenced to death under that provision,” Todd said. “People have long thought that the provision would be unconstitutional, but it hasn’t been challenged because there have been no cases.”
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Source : The Washington Post