Synthetic Cannabinoids became popular in the 2000’s when they were first marketed as “legal herbs.” In 2008, chemical analysis revealed that these designer drugs were more than just herbs. The military, in particular, had a big problem with Spice and K2 (two forms of synthetic marijuana) in the late 2000’s, because they gave users a similar (or greater) high than marijuana, but they were not included in any federal schedule of controlled substances. As these substances became more popular and widely consumed, the DEA banned their use in 2010 using emergency temporary powers and then later by placing them on Schedule I of Controlled Substance Act.
How Do Controlled Substances Analogues (Designer Drugs) Fit Into the Federal Drug Control Scheme?
United States v Malone (5th Circuit Court of Appeals – 2016)
Thomas Malone and his business partner Drew Green owned NutraGenomics Manufacturing, LLC, a distributor of JWH-018, a synthetic cannabinoid substance, also known as “Spice” and “K2” on the street. However, in 2011 federal and state legislatures banned JWH-018 and other similar designer drugs or synthetic cannabinoids. Malone and Green began selling other synthetic cannabinoids, namely, AM-2201, known as “Mr. Miyagi…a mixture of AM-2201 and vegetable material that visually resemble[s] marijuana.” Eventually, Malone and Green ordered the mass manufacture of Mr. Miyagi, selling in bulk to a distributor in Louisiana. Although labeled as potpourri, Mr. Miyagi was supposed to be smoked like marijuana.
Malone Faced Federal Indictment For Possession and Distribution of Mr. Miyagi
A federal grand jury returned an indictment, charging Malone with one count of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute AM-2201, and, one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. Malone decided to take a plea agreement, pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute and possess with the intent to distribute a Schedule I Controlled Dangerous Substance, a violation of 21 U.S.C. §§846, 841(b)(1)(c), 813, 802(32)(A). The district court accepted Malone’s guilty plea of distributing not less than 1400 kilograms of AM-2201, and ordered a pre-sentence report. A pre-sentence report “PSR” is a report created by a probation office in anticipation of the punishment phase of a trial—the PSR in this case set out to determine “the base offense level using the marijuana equivalency of the most closely related controlled substance to AM-2201.”
Pre-Sentencing Report’s Mathematical Formula Indicated Severe Penalty
The PSR listed Tetrahydrocannabinol, THC, as the most closely related controlled substance to AM-2201. Further, the federal Drug Equivalency Tables indicated that a 1 to 167 ration be applied to convert the 1400 kilograms of AM-2201 into marijuana for the purpose of sentences under the federal Sentencing Guidelines. Using this mathematical equation, it was determined that Malone should be sentenced for 233,800 kilograms of marijuana—the highest level set forth by the Drug Equivalency Tables. At trial, each side put forth an expert witness arguing for and against the use of the THC and the THC ratio set forth in the PSR.
Battle of the Experts at Trial
The Government’s Expert
The Government called Dr. Jordan Trecki to testify that THC is the most closely related substance to AM-2201. Dr. Trecki relied on a scientific study “showing that both THC and AM-2201 bind to the same cannabinoid receptor” in the brain. Second, he testified about a study on rats where the rats could not tell the difference between THC and AM-2201. Third, he discussed AM-2201’s potency and effects on humans. Dr. Trecki told the court that THC and AM-2201 are close in chemical make-up and in effect on the structures of the brain. Dr. Trecki said, however, that there was no scientific basis for the 1:167 ratio.
Malone’s attorney called Dr. Nicholas Cozzi, who stressed the importance of comparison of the two drug compounds—THC and AM-2201—in humans, not just in animals. Dr. Cozzi criticized Dr. Trecki’s analysis because Trecki “combined the results of several studies” and that the studies were not conducted on humans, rather they were animal studies. Dr. Cozzi stated that marijuana, not THC, was the most closely related substance to AM-2201 because it’s smoked and inhaled, like marijuana, and because both substances are consumed for their effect. Dr. Cozzi agreed with Dr. Trecki on one point—that the 1:167 ratio was not rooted in science.
The Big Issue Before the Fifth Circuit
Relying heavily on Dr. Trecki’s expert testimony, the District Court sentenced Malone to 117 months imprisonment and three years of supervised release following prison. The court noted that “the ratios in sentencing guidelines are often arbitrary… [however] the ratios seek to outline the relative harm of certain drugs.” Malone appeals to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Fifth Circuit must determine whether THC really is the most closely-related substance to the controlled substance analogue, AM-2201, and if so, whether the 1:167 ratio is a reasonable conversion for sentencing purposes.
The Fifth Circuit Weighs In
Here, the Fifth Circuit points out that the district court spent a day holding an evidentiary hearing on the equivalency of AM-2201 to other drugs, “it is significant that the district court gave this matter studied attention.” The court notes that each side had the ability to present an expert witness and to cross examine. “Nothing in the record leaves us with…the conviction that a mistake [was made].”
Second, the Fifth Circuit compares AM-2201 and marijuana, disagreeing with Dr.Cozzi’s assertion that both drugs are smoked and inhaled in the same manner. “Marijuana is not consumed way…there is no evidence that a user would smoke a pure form of AM-2201, just as a user would not smoke pure THC.”
Third, the Fifth Circuit says that the district court did not have to “engage in a piece-by-piece analysis of empirical grounding behind…[the] sentencing guidelines.” United States v. Duarte, 569 F.3d 357, 366-67 (5th Cir. 2009). Accordingly, the Court says that only the Commission on sentencing guidelines can change the guidelines, and therefore, does not rule on this issue. The Fifth Circuit agrees with the holding and reasoning of the district court—Malone’s sentence is affirmed.
*This case consolidates two cases, United States v. Malone and United States v. Green.