FRANKLIN COUNTY, Mo. – A nine-year sentence for marijuana possession could turn into life imprisonment for a sick man.
Steven Sutherland had to wheel-up to our interview and plug into oxygen in order to talk. He said if he had it to do over, he would break the law again.
In June, a Franklin County jury found Sutherland guilty of marijuana possession and unlawful use of drug paraphernalia.
“Well, they proved it. I admitted it, so they proved it. So they said, ‘We have no choice,’” he said.
In court, Sutherland admitted he was using marijuana when officers raided a 400-acre property he watched over and lived on.
“I was sitting there drinking my first cup of coffee and was smoking a bowl that morning,” he said.
Sutherland was already a felon from a 1996 marijuana conviction.
He said he thought he was legal this time because he had a California medical marijuana card.
His court file includes a note from his local Mercy doctor, which reads: “I have tried (Sutherland) on multiple seizure medications without much benefit. I believe medical use of marijuana may help.”
Sutherland was caught before Missouri voters legalized medical marijuana use November 2018.
“What I did doesn’t justify being in here,” he said. “What I did might have been illegal, but I mean, I’m in here doing time, more time than people who committed violent rapes and murders.”
Jason Grellner, with the Missouri Narcotics Officers’ Association, was one of the original investigating officers.
“We have leeway, don’t get me wrong, but we don’t have that much leeway,” he said.
Grellner said officers also found Sutherland had long guns, which he could not have because of his prior marijuana felony.
“When there’s a felon in possession of firearms, society says, especially now in this day and age, that’s an important law,” he said. “We want that enforced all the time whenever you see it, we don’t want people who have mind-altering substances in their body with guns.”
The felon in possession of firearms does not show up on Sutherland's court record but was considered during sentencing.
“He got so many years because the judge knows everything else he did,” Grellner said.
Sutherland doesn’t hide any of his past. He admits he's grown marijuana and that police also found guns when they raided him.
“I’m not a violent person. I’ve never had any violent crimes,” he said. “I didn’t agree with the fact they told me I couldn’t have a gun in the first place.”
If Sutherland were to get out of prison, would he obtain another gun and more marijuana?
“No, I’ll leave the guns alone but I’ll go back to the weed,” Sutherland said. “Yeah, I have no choice. It’s either that or continue having the seizures.”
Sutherland is scheduled to be released in 2029. Sutherland says a doctor told him he's not expected to make it to that release date.