Synthetic Drugs Can Lead to Uneven Sentencing

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The sellers called it Mr. Miyagi, a mind-altering chemical compound mixed with vegetable material and resembling marijuana, the Associated Press reports. The drug was meant to be smoked for a potent high, notwithstanding a deceptive label that the product was potpourri not fit for human consumption. Less clear was how to punish the people who pushed it. As drug enforcement authorities sound alarms over synthetic drugs, the Mr. Miyagi case in Louisiana is an example of how courts are struggling for consistency in dealing with substances that are developing faster than are the laws governing them. The result is a sentencing process that’s often bogged down by complex science and can yield uneven results around the nation.

“It’s been a challenge for the courts and for the regulatory agencies to manage and make appropriate, logical decisions relating to these new substances,” said Greg Dudley, a West Virginia University chemistry professor who has testified in synthetic drug cases. “If they’re interpreted differently in different courts, you end up with broad disparities in sentencing for similar offenses.” The U.S. Sentencing Commission is studying ways for courts to handle better the cases involving drugs such as “bath salts,” which can provoke violent outbursts, and the party drug Molly. The panel is doing a two-year study on synthetic drugs that will look at whether to update the drug quantity table that federal judges rely on at sentencing. Judges find the most similar drug to the one in their case, based on chemical makeup and pharmacological effects. They then convert the drug quantity in their case to the equivalent quantity of marijuana to calculate a base offense level. That often causes confusion.


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