Jeff Mizanskey, a Missouri man who has spent a third of his life in prison for a nonviolent drug offense, grinned and raised his arms in victory shortly before stepping across the threshold of the prison's metal detector and into the waiting arms of family. His first word uttered as a free man while embracing his son: "finally."
The now 62-year-old was convicted 20 years ago for conspiring to sell 6 pounds of cannabis to a drug dealer with links to Mexican cartels. Already having two prior offenses for pot possession and sale in 1984 and again for possession in 1991 under his belt, Mizanskey's third drug infraction meant a life sentence without the possibility of parole, under the state's since-repealed Prior and Persistent Drug Offender law.
But after years of tireless petitioning by his family, legislators, and marijuana activists, Mizanskey was finally released on parole Tuesday, more than three months after Missouri Governor Jay Nixon announced he would commute the great grandfather's sentence in May.
"My action provides Jeff Mizanskey with the opportunity to demonstrate that he deserves parole," Nixon said in a statement at the time.
Standing outside the prison, wearing a black T-shirt with the words "I'm Jeff & I'm free" printed under a large cannabis leaf superimposed on an image of the state of Missouri, Mizanskey advocated on behalf of other prisoners who have received years and even decades in prison for nonviolent drug crimes.
His release comes as lawmakers across the nation soften their stances on non-violent drug offenses and just weeks after President Obama himself commuted the sentence of 46 non-violent drug offenders, some who were also serving life under draconian sentencing laws.
Simultaneously in July, Obama also announced plans to overhaul the US criminal justice system, including cutting back or eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing, truncating jail terms for non-violent prisoners, and introducing smarter sentencing legislation to Congress in an effort to correct America's culture of mass incarceration and save taxpayers from the some $80 billion spent on corrections each year.
During the time that Mizanskey was behind bars, he watched murderers, rapists, and other criminals enter and leave the facility, while he missed out on watching his two sons have families of their own, according to the Riverfront Times, which first reported on Mizanskey's incarceration in 2013.
"I spent a third of my life in prison," Mizanskey said outside Jefferson City Correctional Center amid a crush of reporters and family members. "It's a shame."
Mizanskey's family did not respond to a request for comment from VICE News Tuesday.
The same year Mizanskey was incarcerated in 1996 for his third marijuana-related offense, California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana, and since then, at least 21 states and DC have followed suit. Four states and DC also have legalized recreational pot in that time, while a handful more are considering putting similar laws on the books.
As part of the effort to secure Mizanskey's release, Missouri Republican Rep. Shamed Dogan helped attain the signatures of roughly 130 state senators and representatives for a petition calling on Nixon to grant him clemency.
"Attitudes to marijuana have been changing," he told VICE News Tuesday. "People saw the grave injustice of giving someone a life without parole sentence for marijuana, which should be reserved only for the worst of the worst criminals."
Despite his role in Mizanskey's commutation, Dogan has yet to officially weigh in on two Missouri ballot initiatives to legalize pot that will be put to popular vote in 2016. While he expressed reservations the ballots would succeed, Dogan indicated his broad support for a positive public outcome.
"Missouri is pretty conservative, they're not going to go for legalizing marijuana any time soon," he said. "But if the people speak [in favor] you have to let their voices be the law of the land. That's certainly the direction other states are headed in."
As for Mizanskey, one of the first things he did when he got out of prison Tuesday morning was to gobble down a steak and egg breakfast with his family. Outside the jail, the former construction worker told reporters that in his post-prison life, he plans to professionally take up the fight to legalize marijuana across the nation and advocate for prisoner rights — and that he would smoke pot again, if it became legal.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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