Marijuana as Currency: The Creation of Drug Equivalency Measures in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines

James Dryden Clark, University of Texas - Austin

Over the last twenty-five years, a sizable amount of research has been dedicated to examining discrepancies in sentencing for similar drug offenses within the federal courts. When the federal court sentences drug offenders under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, the quantity of the illicit drugs largely determines the length of sentence. However, in the case of a defendant convicted of drug offenses involving multiple classifications of controlled substances, each drug is converted to its "marihuana equivalent weight" to calculate a single drug quantity to determine a final offense level. According to the Guideline manual, "Because of the statutory equivalences, the ratios in the Drug Equivalency Tables do not necessarily reflect dosages based on pharmacological equivalents." This paper examines the use of marihuana as a measurement unit or currency within the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Within the sentencing phase of federal criminal cases, marihuana is socially constructed as a currency of exchange to determine an offense level based on the Drug Equivalency Tables. Marihuana's high rates of use and a common knowledge of marihuana, however, allow court officials to interpret the seriousness of other drug offenses through existing symbolic understanding of marihuana.

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Updated 05/20/2006