Nonviolent weed offenders still serve more time than child pornographers

Nonviolent weed offenders still serve more time than child pornographers

VicesJune 05, 2017 By Isabelle Kohn

Twenty-four years.

That's how long a 56-year-old Texas man will be spending in prison for the non-violent offense of selling pot.

David Lopez received his Miley Cyrus-aged sentence on June 2 after being convicted on possession and drug conspiracy charges. According to federal prosecutors, Lopez was in the business of using his trucking company to ship weed from El Paso to multiple U.S. cities between 2001 and August 2015, which seemed to be going great for him until his goods were linked to busts in Texas, New Mexico, and Kansas. Eventually, he was tracked down and arrested after he tried to hire a DEA informant to transport his weed.

The fact that he'd also been convicted of weed possession in 1995 didn't help.

Still, though — stiff sentence. Particularly when you consider that Lopez is a non-violent drug offender whose crimes were not connected to any instances of violence in the entirety of his 14 year career.

By contrast, many crimes of violence or sexual exploitation — crimes that actually harm people physically and psychologically — carry shorter mandatory minimum sentences than Lopez's marijuana sentence in some states. For example, the mandatory minimum sentence for running a "child exploitation enterprise" is 20 years. Twenty years for hijacking an airplane. Ten for a second offense of child porn possession. Twenty years for killing a state correctional officer. Twenty years for kidnapping a minor and ... so on.

Yet, here's Lopez, a guy who sold weed, a substance which is legal at least medically in over half of U.S. states, with 24 years. Sure, he had two distinct charges and a prior, but ... four more years than someone who ran a child exploitation enterprise? Get real.

... Not that there's any chance of said "getting real" in the foreseeable future.

According to VICE News, Will Glaspy, the Special Agent in Charge of the DEA’s El Paso Division said in a statement that the purpose of Lopez's severe, 24-year prison stint was to send “a strong and unified message that drug dealing, at all levels, will not be tolerated, and, in turn, we are making our communities safer.” In other words, Lopez was an example.

The length of his sentence is jaw-dropping on its own — especially considering his weed wasn't linked to any instances of violence — but it's just one of many recent cases in which judges have been taking advantage of mandatory minimum sentences in order to throw people charged with narcotics crimes in jail for longer amounts of time.

Typically, longer sentences are intended to, as Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein puts it, "reduce violent crime and drug abuse," but ... there's currently little evidence to support that idea. In fact, a National Association of Drug Courts report estimated that while 50 percent of jail and prison inmates are clinically addicted to a substance, prison time does little to curb their addictions. Sixty to 80 percent of drug abusers commit a new crime (typically a drug-related one) after release from prison, and approximately 95 percent return to drug abuse when they get out.

So, more jail time for non-violent doesn't really help anyone. And as the many failures of the War on Drugs has shown, putting more people in prison for longer amounts of time doesn't reduce drug use rates. Today, 30 years after the War on Drugs began, more people report experimenting with illegal narcotics, many of which are cheaper to buy now than they were in the '70s.

All longer, harsher sentences like Lopez's have really accomplished is over-crowded prisons — thanks to our government's current and historical directive to arrest and imprison non-violent drug offenders, America's federal prison population has exploded 800 percent over the past 30 years, costing taxpayers unknown billions and sucking offenders into spirals of criminality and survival economies in which engaging in illegal activities like prostitution or drug dealing feels like the only way out. These longer sentences and the mass imprisonment of drug offenders has also, as federal prosecutor Nancy Gertner and a federal judge Chiraag Bains report, led to "scanalous racial disparities."

"Mandatory federal drug sentencing is unforgiving," the wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post. "A person with one prior drug felony who is charged with possession of 10 grams of LSD, 50 grams of methamphetamine, or 280 grams of crack cocaine with intent to distribute faces 20 years to life. With two priors — no matter how long ago they occurred — the penalty is life without parole. As one federal judge has written, these are sentences that 'no one — not even the prosecutors themselves — thinks are appropriate.'”

Nevertheless, these mandatory minimum laws, which eased up under the Obama administration, are back in full force under the influence of Trump and his Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

As The Guardian reports, "Sessions is directing federal prosecutors to pursue the most serious charges possible against the vast majority of suspects, a reversal of Obama-era policies that is sure to send more people to prison and for much longer terms. The move has long been expected from Sessions, a former federal prosecutor who cut his teeth at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic and who has promised to make combating violence and drugs the justice department’s top priority."

Now, under his watch, many people are worried the Department of Justice will be flexing the full force of the gavel to subject more nonviolent weed defendants to mandatory minimums that, when compared with the mildness of their crimes, don't really make sense. One of the strangest pieces of evidence that suggest this is happening — that judges are targeting marijuana offenders for longer sentences in particular — is that Lopez was also in possession of a small amount of cocaine at the time of his arrest. However, while both marijuana and cocaine are Schedule 1 substances and carry similar mandatory minimum sentences, prosecutors isolated Lopez's weed charges and ignored the potential of a cocaine one. There's no definitive evidence that their dismissal of the cocaine was to send the message that weed in particular won't be tolerated — even in an increasingly accepting, increasingly legal atmosphere — but ... it is curious nonetheless.

Meanwhile, Lopez’s quarter-century sentence ranks him along a small group of “marijuana lifers,” a collection of at least 16 inmates who won't be getting out of prison in anything less than a body bag, all for weed sentences.

There's still a tiny blob of hope, though: Rosenstein says that that prosecutors will still be able to decide when to file charges that carry a mandatory minimum. They didn't have to in Lopez's case but ... they did. Don't mess with Texas, we guess.