Grandfather Serving Life Sentence for Pot May Be One Step Closer to Freedom

Here’s an update on the TakePart feature that detailed the troubling case of a man who has been behind bars for 21 years for marijuana.

(Photo: Voice Media Group/Vimeo)

Mar 4, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

While states and cities across the country have decriminalized marijuana, it’s taken a very long time for the state of Missouri to consider freeing one prisoner sentenced to life without parole for marijuana possession.

Jeff Mizanskey has spent the past 21 years in prison for the nonviolent crime of cannabis possession.

New legislation from Republican Rep. Shamed Dogan could send the 61-year-old home to his two sons and six grandchildren before the summer.

“It was just literally unbelievable to me the fact that somebody could receive a sentence like that,” Dogan told TakePart. “When you hear a life-without-parole sentence you assume it’s a murder, or someone who’s a serious robber or rapist or something like that, where it’s a violent crime.”

The bill went before a House Corrections Committee on Wednesday morning in a promising first step toward Mizanskey’s release. The proposed law authorizes a parole board to release any prisoner serving a life sentence for marijuana offenses. Dogan was inspired to author the bill after reading about Mizanskey’s situation.

While Mizanskey may have enjoyed smoking pot as a free man, he has no history of violent crime—his family and even local law enforcement officials testified in Wednesday’s hearing to that effect. Under Missouri’s prior and persistent drug offenders law, the severity of the crime does not matter. Three felony convictions can land an offender in prison for life. With three marijuana possession and distribution charges under his belt, Mizanskey fell prey to the harsh mandatory sentence.

This three-strikes rule was repealed last year but does not offer retroactive sentencing that would help Mizanskey. Requests for executive clemency from Gov. Jay Nixon have yet to be reviewed, so Dogan took matters into his own hands.

“When our legislature creates policies like that, that harm somebody’s life to an undue extent, I think it’s our responsibility to try and undo that damage or lessen that damage that’s been done to his life, and to the lives of his family members and the other people he loves,” said Dogan.

Before the committee votes, it wants to make a few changes to Dogan’s bill. One of them— an emergency clause—would work in Mizanskey’s favor. The clause means he would be freed as soon as the bill was signed instead of having to wait an additional few months until the legislation went into effect, Aaron Malin, a spokesperson for Show-Me Cannabis, explained. An organization dedicated to reforming marijuana legislation, Show-Me Cannabis has long supported Mizanskey with a campaign devoted to securing his freedom.

There are still a few hoops to jump through. After the corrections committee votes next week, the bill heads to the judiciary committee for a vote before it’s sent to the House and then the Senate.

While Dogan is confident the bill with pass, Malin doesn’t want to get ahead of himself.

“Hating to speculate about the potential for freedom for a man who’s been in prison for 21 years, I am beginning to be cautiously optimistic that Jeff could be out in the next month or two,” Malin said. “That’s what I told Jeff, and that’s what I told his brother and son.”