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December 2, 2004 - The Wall Street Journal (US)

Imperfect Measure

In Drug Sentences, Guesswork Often Plays Heavy Role

By Gary Fields

Return to
Blakely News Archive

Authorities Use Varying Tools To Calculate How Much Criminals Wanted to Make Mr. Rosacker's Hoard of Tea

On May 9, 1998, police and their dogs chased Elizabeth Cronan into a wooded area near an abandoned house in Pace, Fla., where she was living. They discovered the former dental assistant with about two grams of methamphetamine, or speed, in her pocket.

That crime alone would lead to only a short prison term. But investigators determined from testimony by Ms. Cronan's co-conspirators that her group had used the old house as a drug lab and produced about 340 grams of speed. Added to other elements of the case, she was now looking at 10 to 13 years.

Then came the topper. Police searching the car of a conspirator found an empty one-pound can of red phosphorus, a chemical found in kitchen matches that is used by drug dealers to cook up speed. A Florida state chemist wrote a report estimating that the phosphorus could yield more than 2,200 grams, or about five pounds, of highly purified methamphetamine. Based on the report, a judge sentenced Ms. Cronan, a first-time offender who is now 45 years old, to 28 years in prison.

Under 1987 federal sentencing guidelines and other federal laws, the amount of drugs involved in a crime is crucial. The guidelines mandate tough sentences for people accused of trafficking in large amounts of drugs, which is why slightly more than half of the nation's 180,000 federal prisoners are behind bars for drug offenses. The goal of the guidelines is to standardize sentences, so that criminals dealing in the same amount of drugs get roughly the same sentence.

But when it comes to measuring the weight of drugs, procedures around the country are anything but standard. The amount of cocaine or marijuana in the defendant's possession is just the start: What really matters is how much a person intended to procure or produce. That question leads the justice system into a speculative realm where botanists, chemists and forensic scientists imagine what might have happened if the defendant had had more time or skill.

The government is "very arbitrary in the way they are calculating yields that aren't based on any scientific foundation," says Warren James Woodford, an independent research biochemist who has testified about drug yields in many federal cases, often for the defense.

(Remainder snipped at the request of The Wall Street Journal)

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