While behind bars in Florida, Richard DeLisi, 71, said he “missed so many important moments” with his family, according to a November statement from the Last Prisoner Project, which advocated for his release. His wife, one of his children, and both of his parents died while he was incarcerated.
When he was freed Tuesday, DeLisi was able to finally meet two of his grandchildren—ages 11 and 1—for the very first time, according to the Associated Press. Speaking from the parking lot of a hamburger joint, he told the news organization that after 31 years of imprisonment, he felt like a “blessed human being, a survivor.”
In 1989, DeLisi was sentenced to 30 years for trafficking marijuana, 30 years for conspiracy to traffic weed, and 30 years for racketeering, according to the Miami New Times. He had tried to smuggle 100 pounds of the drug into Florida from Colombia, according to CBS Miami.
A typical sentence for his crime would’ve been 12 to 17 years, according to the AP. DeLisi believed the judge handed him a harsher punishment because he was an Italian from New York, and mistakenly assumed he was part of an organized crime group, the AP reported.
Attitudes on marijuana have shifted dramatically since DeLisi was imprisoned decades ago. Recreational marijuana is now legal in 15 states and Washington, D.C., according to NBC News. Just this month, the House of Representatives endorsed marijuana legalization for the first time when the chamber passed a bill to decriminalize the drug and expunge nonviolent weed convictions, according to the New York Times.
That effort is unlikely to make it through a Republican-led Senate to become law.
In the meantime, marijuana offenders are still locked up on lengthy sentences—even in states where weed has been legalized.
DeLisi is not the first person to be freed after a long prison sentence for a marijuana conviction.
Just this summer, Derek Harris, a Black veteran, was released from the Louisiana State Penitentiary after his sentence—life in prison for selling less than a gram of marijuana—was reduced. Harris spent nearly a decade behind bars, according to the Promise of Justice Initiative, a nonprofit criminal justice reform group.
DeLisi was scheduled to be released in 2022, according to his website, but advocates pushed for a quicker date because he has health problems and could’ve died if exposed to the virus, according to The Ledger, a Florida newspaper. The Florida Department of Corrections decided to release DeLisi earlier for reasons of its own.
“It was so unjust what they did to me,” DeLisi told The Ledger. “I just hope that I can help other people that are in the same situation.”