Missouri Man Sentenced to Life In Prison for Nonviolent Pot Crime Goes Free

Most people, including the president of the United States, now admit the drug laws in the U.S. have been exaggerated for too long. As education spreads and public perception shifts, some of those out-of-date policies are crumbling. Americans are recognizing drug addiction as a health issue, rather than a criminal offense, and state by state the laws are loosening up.

The change in public opinion is especially overt when it comes to the most popular illegal drug, marijuana. While having anything to do with cannabis remains a felony offense, four states — Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington— have legalized pot for adult use, and almost half of U.S. states allow for its medical use.

However, for every one of the hundreds of entrepreneurs flipping on the lights for the first time in their Colorado pot shops, there are two unfortunate souls rotting behind bars for cannabis-related crimes. Even in states where cannabis is legal, most cannabis convicts have yet to be pardoned and released.

A glimmer of hope came this week when 62-year-old Jeff Mizanskey, imprisoned for more than two decades on a nonviolent marijuana-related charge, was released from the Jefferson City Correctional Center in Missouri. Mizanskey was initially sentenced to life in prison without parole for buying pot. As he told reporter Summer Ballentine of the AP, he has already spent a third of his life behind bars. He plans to spend the time he still has advocating for cannabis legalization.

Mizanskey’s family, friends and attorney Dan Viets spent decades working toward his release. Viets told AP the shift in national opinion has everything to do with the long overdue victory.

Mizanskey was the only inmate in the state of Missouri serving life without parole for a nonviolent, cannabis-related offense. Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon agreed to commute his sentence in May.

While Mizanskey’s release is a step in a less draconian direction, it must be noted that he is white. Despite the fact that all races use and sell drugs at relatively equal rates, the vast majority of drug-related convicts in the U.S. are black or Hispanic. The national war on drugs has primarily targeted minority communities and has had devastating, multi-generational effects (see this AlterNet article for a detailed description of the situation by Michelle Alexander). While the release of one marijuana prisoner is a positive sign of the times, the U.S. has a long way to go before we can call our drug policies fair.

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