Historic marijuana laws approved this week in Oregon gave a federal judge pause in the sentencing of a prolific marijuana runner, with the judge saying he wants to wait and see if the US government alters its long-held opposition to marijuana legalization before bringing down the gavel.
Bounlith Bouasykeo, also known by the nickname "Bong," was scheduled to be sentenced on Thursday after pleading guilty in July to charges of conspiracy to manufacture, distribute, and possess marijuana with the intent to distribute, the Oregonian reported. Bouasykeo was accused of intending to move as much as 36 pounds of marijuana, which sold for up to $3,500 per pound, according to court documents.
But Oregon's voters passed legislation on Tuesday legalizing marijuana in the state, a change which caused US District Judge Michael Mosman to delay sentencing for one month. Mosman said he wanted to see if the new pot laws would affect the US Department of Justice's (DOJ) view on marijuana.
The US Attorney for Oregon Amanda Marshall said this week that the new law wouldn't change the way her office views marijuana, but the DOJ has said in the past that it won't infringe on individual states that have legalized the drug.
Bob Capecchi, deputy director of state policy with the Marijuana Policy Project, told VICE News that since recreational marijuana has been legal in Colorado and Washington, the federal government hasn't gotten involved.
"The federal government has already played their hand, they've already allowed it in DC and Colorado," he said, adding that the federal government will likely defer to the states on cases of marijuana-law interpretation.
Judge Mosman, nevertheless, wanted to give himself time to see how recently passed marijuana laws — Oregon, Alaska, and Washington DC all approved legalization measures this week — would shape the national conversation on the drug.
The judge said that he didn't want to send Bouasykeo to prison on Thursday and then see that the Department of Justice had changed its stance on marijuana crimes. It comes down to a philosophical question about pot, he said.
"I think I know what the people of Oregon think about the possession of marijuana," Mosman said in court, adding that Bouasykeo's crimes were not small offenses. "It was a pretty serious enterprise ... even for Oregon."
The judge also referred to Bouaskykeo's operation as "a fairly serious illegal enterprise."
Bouasykeo's sentencing now is scheduled for Dec. 11. It appears unlikely that Bouasykeo will see a reduced sentence in this case, because his crimes still would be illegal even if he had committed them after the new legislation takes effect.
Oregon's Measure 91 removes legal penalties for adults aged 21 and older who possess, use, and grow a restricted amount of marijuana. Adults legally will be allowed to possess up to eight ounces of marijuana or grow up to four plants per household. Adults can possess up to one ounce of pot in public and the maximum amount for purchase is one ounce. Bouasykeo was dealing in pounds of marijuana, not ounces.
Election results will be confirmed December 4 and once approval is confirmed, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) — the body responsible for regulating marijuana in the state — can begin making specific rules. Possession and home cultivation by adults becomes legal on July 1, 2015. The OLCC will start accepting applications for marijuana businesses on January 4, 2016.
People arrested in states that later legalized marijuana have been let off in the past. After Washington approved legalization, Seattle's city attorney dropped all pending cases of simple marijuana possession, Capecchi said. Oregon officials said they are considering something similar.
But Capecchi said since Bouasykeo has pleaded guilty to much more than simple possession, he probably will not be let off.
"Certainly two years ago I would have said there's no way he'll be let off for this," Capecchi said. "It's unlikely he'll get off now, but stranger things have happened."
Follow Payton Guion on Twitter @PaytonGuion