A 56-year-old Texas man will likely spend the rest of his life behind bars for selling marijuana in a case that highlights the severity of the mandatory-minimum drug sentencing laws that are making a comeback under the Trump administration.
David Lopez was sentenced June 2 to more than 24 years in federal prison after he was convicted on drug conspiracy and possession charges. Federal prosecutors say Lopez had been shipping weed from El Paso to cities in the U.S. from 2001 until August 2015, and he was linked to busts in Texas, New Mexico, and Kansas where police seized over 3,300 kilos of pot. Lopez owned several trucking companies, and he was nabbed after he tried to hire a DEA informant and an undercover officer to transport marijuana for him.
Will Glaspy, the Special Agent in Charge of the DEA's El Paso Division, said in a statement that Lopez's sentence sends "a strong and unified message that drug dealing, at all levels, will not be tolerated, and, in turn, we are making our communities safer."
Lopez, however, was not linked to any acts of violence. The evidence list in his case includes a relatively small amount of cocaine that was seized during the investigation, but he was only charged with selling marijuana. His lengthy sentence was the result of federal rules that require mandatory-minimums for drug conspiracy charges. Prosecutors also sought additional time because Lopez was previously convicted of felony marijuana possession in Missouri in 1995.
The case began under the Obama administration, which had moved to lessen sentences for nonviolent drug offenders at the federal level as part of a broader criminal justice reform effort. Now under the leadership of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Department of Justice is cracking down and subjecting more drug defendants to mandatory minimums.
Critics have warned that the new policy will rekindle the war on drugs and lead to more low-level, nonviolent drug offenders spending longer stretches in federal prison, but Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said Friday that prosecutors will still be able to decide when to file charges that carry a mandatory minimum.
"We're not about filling prisons," Rosenstein told the Associated Press. "The mission is to reduce violent crime and drug abuse, and this helps us do that."
Lopez's sentence of 293 months in prison will put him in the club of so-called "marijuana lifers," a group of at least 16 inmates known to be serving life or "de facto life" sentences for marijuana charges. If Lopez serves his entire sentence, he'd be released at age 78.
While such cases are relatively rare, statistics show that thousands of Americans are still being locked up in federal prison for pot. According to data released last year by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, there were 3,384 marijuana trafficking cases in 2015, accounting for roughly 17 percent of all federal drug offenders.
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