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How federal and state marijuana charges can differ

  • Birdsall Obear

Despite the continuous conversation around legalization, marijuana remains illegal under both U.S. law and Wisconsin law. The thresholds and penalties outlined in federal and state law, however, are different.

That means an individual charged with a marijuana-related crime by Wisconsin authorities will likely be facing a completely different type of case than if the charges had come from the federal government. How significant might the differences be? Here is a brief overview. 

The focus of the charges

Under Wisconsin law, prosecutions of marijuana crimes can include simple possession, cultivation and intent to distribute. Courts may end up seeing cases ranging from low-level street arrests to larger, operational busts. 

There are federal laws prohibiting the possession of marijuana, but federal prosecutors often look to hook individuals they believe to be bigger fish. That might be people who run an organized regional drug trafficking ring, or someone who grows quite significant amounts of the plant. 

Severity of penalties

Penalties for violating federal drug laws can be quite severe. The penalty for being convicted of cultivating 50-99 marijuana plants is up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million. If the crime includes anywhere from 100 to 999 plants, it’s at least five years in prison, possibly as many as 40 years.

Compare those figures to Wisconsin law, where if you’re convicted of growing or distributing 20-50 marijuana plants, you face a prison sentence of up to 10 years and potentially a fine of $25,000 max. Anywhere from 50-200 plants, and the prison sentence may jump to 12 1/2 years.

Federal offenses can also come with harsh mandatory minimum sentences. That means, regardless of the unique circumstances of an individual’s case or situation, they are facing a certain number of years behind bars if convicted, no matter what.

Parole opportunities

The federal parole system is available only to a select number of prisoners. Anyone that committed any offense from November of 1987 onward is very likely not eligible for parole. That means a federal marijuana-related conviction can lead to a long prison term with little opportunity to get out early.

Wisconsin’s parole system, meanwhile, is fairly strict when compared to other states. But there may be some opportunities for those convicted under state law that are unavailable to federal prisoners.

Fighting the charges

Whether someone is charged under Wisconsin law or by a federal agency makes a huge difference – not just when it comes to their future, but how a defense team may go about fighting the charges.

These cases can be complex, requiring a deep understanding of the judicial system. Individuals facing federal counts may be staring at a long prison sentence without the possibility of parole, making it all the more important for an attorney to get involved in the case as soon as possible.

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