Recent Changes in Federal Sentencing Law for Drug Crimes

Over the last year, the U.S. Sentencing Commission has enacted several amendments to the nation’s federal sentencing laws for drug crimes that in effect will reduce sentences for approximately 70% of federal drug trafficking defendants by an average of 11 months.

The impetus for this change has been to address a much-needed reduction in prison populations in the U.S. — which is currently at three times the level it was in 1991, according to the Commission — while maintaining public safety.

The Commission’s actions included:

Reducing drug offenses by two levels. One of the most substantial changes is the reduction by two levels of all but the most serious drug offenses. This action is also retroactive, allowing as many as 47,000 defendants incarcerated for a drug crime to reduce their sentences.

Reducing penalties for crack cocaine. The Commission equalized the penalties for crack cocaine, cocaine base and cocaine powder offenses. Previously, the penalties for crack cocaine were more stringent that for other forms of the drug. However, the government realized that since African-Americans used this form of cocaine more than the others, the previous laws had an unfair impact on this part of the population.

Eliminating weight of drugs in complaint. Federal drug laws require mandatory minimum sentences of 5-10 years for drug offenses involving small amounts of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. The government has directed that the weight amount not be included in the formal complaint for routine drug offenses, freeing judges from having to impose mandatory sentences in cases that don’t justify it.

More recently, the Commission voted to increase the penalties associated with hydrocodone following the rescheduling of that drug by the Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”) from Schedule III to the more serious Schedule II. This is scheduled to go into effect on November 1, 2015.

The Cogdell Law Firm is a boutique law firm focusing on large, complex business and criminal financial-related litigation, including white collar criminal defense, securities fraud, health care fraud investigation, criminal appeals and state criminal defense. When results matter most, contact Dan Cogdell at (713) 426-2244 or