By Steve Elliott
At least 67 people are serving life sentences in prison right now for marijuana in the United States.
The plight of marijuana lifers has received new attention since the release last week of Jeff Mizanskey, who had been one of them, reports Tony Dokoupil at MSNBC.
"Man, I feel great," Mizanskey, now a great-grandfather after serving more than 20 years in prison, said as he looked at his first weekend as a free man in two decades. His sentence was commuted in May from life without parole to simple life, and last week he walked out of a maximum security prison in Missouri.
Mizanskey was sentenced in 1996 for trying to distribute six pounds of Mexican weed. There was no violence involved, but he had two previous convictions for the possession and sale of marijuana totaling 10 ounces.
That meant, under Missouri law at the time, that he was a "persistent" drug offender, subject to any punishment short of the death penalty. That law is no longer in effect, but similar policies continue to fill American prisons.
More than 20 states have now legalized cannabis for one purpose or another, and with $22 billion in legal sales expected by 2020, marijuana is becoming another consumer product. But these new laws don't help people with past marijuana convictions, including some with sentences harsher than those for rape or murder.
Jeff Mizanskey walked out of prison Tuesday morning a free man after spending 21 years behind bars because of a minor, nonviolent marijuana offense. Mizanskey walked into the arms of more than a dozen family, friends and supporters, including his son, who had fought for years for his dad's release from prison.
"I'm one of the lucky ones," Mizanskey said. "Now it's time to free the other victims of the war on drugs."
The 61-year-old became a symbol of the failed War On Drugs. His campaign for clemency attracted 391,254 Change.org petition signatures, a plea from the prosecutor who put him away, a bill proposed by Missouri Rep. Shamed Dogan, a letter for clemency from 126 Missouri lawmakers, billboards in prominent locations, including the state capitol of Jefferson City, a documentary about his plight, a commuted sentence from Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and a successful review from the parole board.
“He saw rapists, murderers and child molesters get out of prison while he was sentenced to die behind bars for something that should not be a crime to begin with,” said his lawyer, Dan Viets. "Jeff's case is an example of the extremely harsh drug laws which have failed to reduce marijuana use but have wasted vast amounts of public money in the effort to enforce marijuana prohibition, disrupting the lives of good people who do not deserve to be treated like criminals."
By Steve Elliott
In a case of justice long delayed, a Missouri man serving life without parole for marijuana will be released from a maximum security prison, according to the man's son.
Jeff Mizanskey was told Monday morning that he has been granted parole, according to his son, Chris Mizanskey, report Michelle Pekarsky and Shannon O'Brien at Fox4KC.com. Chris said his dad should be released within 10 to 25 days.
According to Chris, his sad called him briefly Monday morning to share the good news. They planned to talk again Monday night.
Jeff Mizanskey has already been behind bars for more than two decades for marijuana offenses. He is now 62 years old.
"My father ... has been in prison since he was 41," reads part of a Change.org petition for Mizanskey's release. "His parents -- my grandparents -- have since passed. While my dad has been trapped behind bars, generations of kids and grandkids have been born into our family who have never even met the man.
"The State of Missouri spends roughly $22,000/year to keep him locked up," the petition reads. "Meanwhile all my dad wants to do is be a productive part of society, work and pay taxes, be with his family. And I want my dad back."
Missiouri Gov. Jay Nixon in May commuted Mizankey's sentence, allowing him to be considered for parole. The hearing was held last week.
By Steve Elliott
Twenty-two years after being arrested for marijuana -- and 19 years after being sentenced to life in prison for it -- Jeff Mizanskey on Friday had his sentenced commuted by Missouri Governor Jay Nixon.
Mizanskey, 62, was the only man in Missouri prisons serving life for pot, report Kevin S. Held and Anthony Kiekow at Fox 2 Now. He was arrested during an undercover drug operation in Sedalia, Missouri, in 1993, and was sentenced in 1996 under the state's Prior and Persistent Drug Offender Law, which is a three-strike, habitual offender system.
"The executive power to grant clemency is one I take with a great deal of consideration and seriousness," Nixon said in a press release announcing the commutation of Mizanskey's sentence, reports Danny Wicentowski at Riverfront Times. Nixon also pardoned five other nonviolent offenders.
"It's wonderful," said Michael Mizanskey, Jeff's brother. "Thank Jay Nixon for doing that, for finally looking at his case and doing the right thing.
"I'm very emotional," Michael said. "I've overjoyed he has a chance. In almost 22 years he had two write-ups, one for putting mail in the wrong slot and one for a messy floor. No fights, no nothing. Tell me that's not a model prisoner."
By Steve Elliott
In a very rare move, a Missouri legislator has proposed a bill to free one man from prison. That happened this week when Rep. Shamed Dogan filed House Bill 978, which would allow a parole board to release any prisoner serving a life sentence for nonviolent marijuana charges.
There's only one man in the state who fits that description, of course: Jeff Mizanskey, 61, a grandfather who has spent more than 20 years behind bars because of Missouri's horrific three-strike law for drug crimes, reports Danny Wicentowski at Riverfront Times.
H.B. 978 doesn't mention Mizanskey by name, but freshman lawmaker Dogan made his intentions clear in a press release in which he called Mizanskey's sentence "a miscarriage of justice."
"It is unconscionable to me that this man, who is no danger to society, will spend the rest of his life in prison at taxpayer expense," Dogan said. "Many of my legislative colleagues have come together to implore the governor to commute Mr. Mizanskey's life sentence, but to date the governor has done nothing more than promise to review Jeff's case before he leaves office."
By Steve Elliott
A prisoner in Missouri who is serving a prison term of life without parole for marijuana has asked the governor for clemency after serving 20 years.
Jeff Mizanskey was arrested on December 18, 1993, when he drove a friend to a motel in Sedalia, Missouri, to meet two men, reports Ray downs at Riverfront Times. To this day, Mizanskey says he had no clue his friend, Atilano Quintana, was going there to buy a few pounds of marijuana.
What Quintana didn't know was that his two friends who were in the motel with a brick of cannabis had been busted the day before, with 13 bricks, and they had agreed to roll over and ensnare more buyers. There were cops and surveillance equipment in the adjoining room; Quintana and Mizanskey were busted.
The surveillance video shows Quintana was the one who made the purchase, and the was the one in possession of the package when he and Mizanskey were arrested. Quintana got a 10-year sentence for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, a Class B felony.
But this was Mizanskey's third pot charge. He'd been busted in 1984 for selling an ounce of pot to a narc, and in 1991 for possession of more than 35 grams.
Jeff, who had never done prison time and never had a violent offense, was given life without parole under Missouri's "prior and persistent drug offender" law.