2012 a Banner Year for Marijuana Seizures in Florida and Nationally; Orlando Marijuana Defense Lawyer Maria D. Hale Comments on Trafficking Laws

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As 2012 ends, Orlando marijuana defense lawyer Maria D. Hale reflects on the fact that this was a major year for marijuana seizures, which were at their highest point since the 1990s. Hale comments on trafficking laws and their efficacy.

"These tough penalties and rigorous enforcement, however, have not changed the demand for marijuana, and these seizures only represent a small amount of the marijuana coming into the country," said Orlando marijuana defense lawyer Maria Hale.

This year will go down in Florida history books as a major year for marijuana seizures off the Florida coast and nationally, with the U.S. Coast Guard seizing thousands of tons of pot.

The Coast Guard reported more than 78,000 pounds of marijuana seized in fiscal year 2012, compared to just more than 39,000 pounds in fiscal year 2011. That figure does not even include some more recent seizures, such as the 6,500 pounds seized in Key West in October or much of the cannabis seized by the ongoing Operation United Resolve, which has seized more than 6,900 pounds of marijuana in the past five months. Much of the large stashes of marijuana are not tons, though, like the 100 pounds of marijuana found floating in the Florida Keys in October in sacks labeled "Brown Sugar." Chief Petty Officer Ryan Doss, of the Coast Guard's Miami district, told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel this is the highest amount the agency has seized since 1997.

"Major marijuana busts by the Coast Guard make for good publicity for the federal government, because it suggests they're making headway on the War on Drugs," said Maria D. Hale, an Orlando marijuana defense lawyer. "The idea they're promoting is that, by shutting down trafficking, they're shutting down the flow of narcotics into the country."

Trafficking laws are meant to address the overall commerce of the drug trade, unlike simple possession laws, which target the user, and delivery/sale laws, which address the single seller, Hale said. By addressing very large amounts of controlled substances, lawmakers aim to shut down the cartels that are transporting them into the country, she said. However, the laws are written to address possession of large amounts of narcotics, in addition to selling, delivering, manufacturing or purchasing.

"If you're in possession of a large amount of narcotics, the law is written to assume that you were engaged in trafficking," Hale said.

Marijuana trafficking charges in Orlando, under Florida Statutes Chapter 893, depend on the amount of marijuana involved. Trafficking less than 25 pounds has the same severity as felony possession: a felony of the third degree. Such a charge leads to up to five years in prison and a fine up to $5,000. Possession of 25 to 2,000 pounds is a second degree felony, punishable by up to 15 years in prison and a fine up to $10,000. More than 2,000 pounds leads to first degree felony charges, which could result in up to 30 years in prison and a fine up to $200,000.

However, trafficking is a significant area of enforcement for federal agencies, like the Coast Guard. Most federal cases, in fact, are related to trafficking. Marijuana is a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, meaning the federal government sees its abuse potential as the highest, as believe it has no accepted medical use. Under federal law, potential fines dramatically increase. Trafficking less than 50 kilograms of marijuana leads to up to five years in prison, the same as the lowest charge under Florida law, but the fine can be up to $250,000. Additionally, there are minimum prison sentence for larger amounts: at least five years in prison for 100 to 999 kilograms, and at least 10 years for 1,000 kilograms or more. Federal penalties double after the first offense. Fines, which are intended to exhaust the funds of drug operations, can be as high as $75 million for non-individuals for 1,000 kilograms or more.

"These tough penalties and rigorous enforcement, however, have not changed the demand for marijuana, and these seizures only represent a small amount of the marijuana coming into the country," Hale said. "As long as there is demand for marijuana, the cartels will find a way to get it into the United States, regardless of how the United States is prosecuting the War on Drugs."

Maria D. Hale is an Orlando criminal defense lawyer with Hale, Hale & Jacobson. She is a former state attorney in Central Florida. She now represents those accused of crimes involving marijuana, along with drug charges, DUI charges and other offenses.

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