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How have drug laws changed since the 2008 conviction of the KC-area man pardoned by Pres. Biden?

Posted at 4:58 PM, Apr 26, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-26 18:13:17-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — President Joe Biden's office announced they granted clemency to 78 people currently behind bars because of their commitment to rehabilitation.

One of those people is 46-year-old Paul Lupercio of Blue Springs, who is in a Leavenworth prison on a 20-year sentence for a drug conviction. The president commuted Lupercio's sentence and he'll get out early in August.

Lupercio was sentenced in 2008 for conspiracy to distribute 1,000 kilograms or more of marijuana and five kilograms or more of cocaine. That comes out to about 2,200 pounds of marijuana and about 11 pounds of cocaine.

Societal attitudes toward cannabis have changed, but how have the laws changed around it?

The KSHB 41 I-Team talked to Paul Nolan, who does criminal defense litigation in Kirksville, Mo. Nolan frequently deals with cannabis cases.

"A decade ago we didn't have the Class D Misdemeanor for possession of 10 grams or less, which is punishable with a maximum of a $500 fine. Prior to that law taking effect, you only had Class A Misdemeanors," Nolan said.

A decade ago, Nolan says, there was more heavy punishments, but those without prior convictions could get a lighter sentence.

"It was frequent that first-time offenders got some form of probation or leniency from prosecutors," he said.

Missouri legalized medical cannabis in 2018, but Nolan says protection still depends on what the local police and prosecutor are like. Some people, especially in rural areas, still get arrested for cannabis possession.

"In most rural areas of the state, we don't have any kind of local ordinance decriminalizing marijuana to just a fine," Nolan said. "However, a lot of prosecutors' offices will reduce a marijuana offense to another offense, or they'll reduce to just paraphernalia so it's not straight marijuana, but it might be drug paraphernalia. And the purpose of that is if you have someone who's caught with some marijuana in their car, that saves their driver's license from automatic Abuse and Lose suspension."

Kansas City decriminalized possession of under 35 grams of cannabis with a $25 fine in 2017. The city later removed penalties altogether.

In 2021, St. Louis decriminalized cannabis by allowing people to possess up to two ounces.

Nolan said Lupercio would have faced the same sentence today as he did in 2008.

"In that case, while, yes, marijuana was involved, and a lot of it, there was also cocaine and some other issues that are relevant. Trafficking will still be prosecuted and addressed," Nolan said.

In the 80s, mandatory minimum sentences were imposed for cocaine offenders, crack being the harshest.

The First Step Act of 2018 made it possible for many drug offenders to get a shorter sentence, even retroactively. It also lessened the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences. While it shaved years off people's sentences who were caught with large amounts, it left out many low-level crack offenders because their cases didn't fit into an upper-level mandatory minimum. Lawsuits have since challenged that law.

Overall, Nolan said cannabis laws will continue to change as more states are legalizing cannabis medicinally or fully.

"Citizens of Missouri are really leaning towards more legalization and more acknowledgment that there are a lot of people who have been through the system, that we might expunge those offenses that are purely marijuana," Nolan said. "It won't make much of a difference for the person with the cocaine conviction but the marijuana stuff may well be expunged in the future."