Cannabis reform is more popular now than at any other time since federal prohibition was put in place in 1937.
Just to give you a little context, Gallup has asked Americans if they support cannabis legalization every year since 1969, back when support was at just 12%.
This year support was at its highest level ever, at 60%. That’s a significant increase. As recently as 2005 support was at only 36%.
The surge in support has been paralleled by an increase in cannabis reform victories across the country. Eight states and Washington D.C. now allow legal cannabis consumption by adults over 21 years old.
Almost 30 states have legalized medical cannabis beyond CBD, and even more have legalized medical cannabis if you count CBD-specific states.
More states are no doubt on their way to reforming their cannabis laws in upcoming years, despite concerns about the recent transition of power at the federal level.
Cannabis reform is great, and a booming industry is great – but not if people are left behind.
While everyone is celebrating and exercising their new found freedoms (and rightfully so), many cannabis supporters are forgetting there are still people sitting in jail for cannabis, and we need to do something about it.
People are sitting in jail cells for cannabis right now all over America, even in states that have voted to legalize cannabis for medical and/or adult use.
People have been caught with cannabis over the years and have suffered insane penalties. It is estimated that there are 20,000 people nationwide sitting in jail or prison for cannabis only offenses.
Opponents will try to minimize that number as being ‘not that many’ or that references to the statistic are ‘overblown.’
But that’s 20,000 humans sitting in a locked cage solely because of a plant that is safer than alcohol. No amount of spin can minimize the reality those men and women have to deal with, and will have to continue to deal with, for a long time.
Some cannabis POWs will sit in a jail cell for cannabis the rest of their lives unless someone in a position to commute their sentence or grant them a pardon does so.
13 years for 2 cannabis joints?
If you are not familiar with the case of Bernard Noble, you should be. Bernard Noble was arrested for possessing roughly two joints’ worth of cannabis in Louisiana.
In Oregon, even prior to legalization, possession of less than 3 grams of cannabis would have yielded a ticket and a fine, or just a stern warning. For Bernard Noble in Louisiana, it resulted in a sentence of over 13 years in prison.
Bernard Noble had prior offenses on his record, and as part of a ‘3 strikes you are out’ public policy on the books in Louisiana, he was given an extremely harsh sentence, by all measures.
Fortunately, Bernard Noble’s sentence was reduced from over 13 years to 8 years. I am of course using the word ‘fortunately’ very loosely because 8 years for less than 3 grams is still inhumane. Bernard Noble is scheduled for release in 2018.
The inspiring story of Jeff Mizanskey
I have worked with cannabis activists in Missouri since 2012, and hands down the most inspiring story that I have ever heard come out of Missouri cannabis reform is the story of Jeff Mizanskey.
Jeff Mizanskey was convicted in the mid-90’s after being charged with a non-violent, cannabis-only offense. The problem for Mr. Mizanskey was that it was his third such offense, which resulted in a life sentence.
Yes, you read that right: Jeff Mizanskey was sentenced to life in prison, solely for cannabis. Like Louisiana, Missouri had previously passed a ‘3 strikes you are out law.’ But unlike Louisiana which eventually let the convicted person out, Missouri went to the full extreme and made the default sentence for a third offense to be life in prison.
For over 20 years Jeff Mizanskey sat in a prison cell watching the years of his life go by, wasted behind prison walls. Even as other states legalized cannabis, and legal sales began, there Jeff sat in prison for cannabis.
Fortunately, that all changed when Jeff’s family, led by his son Chris, started bringing attention to Jeff’s case via an online petition and interviews with media.
The story and petition were promoted on social media, and the story went viral. I will never forget seeing the petition on Reddit.com, upvoting it along with other activists, and later seeing the story erupt. It was one of the most inspiring things I have ever witnessed.
The social media buzz and mainstream media buzz, combined with a lot of letters to Missouri government officials, eventually won Jeff Mizanskey his freedom.
Jeff was made eligible for parole, was granted parole, and has since been making up for lost time with his family (and shaking hands with this particular activist at an event in Las Vegas!).
The story of Jeff Mizanskey is one of pain and unfairness, but it’s also a story of inspiration, and is a glowing example of what is possible when cannabis supporters come together and unite to help free cannabis prisoners from incarceration.
Many prisoners still need to be freed
The story of Antonio Bascaró is one that many cannabis consumers are not familiar with, and it’s a shame. Antonio Bascaró has served the longest prison sentence for a cannabis-only offense in United States history.
That is not a record that anyone wants to have. My friend Robert ‘Bobby Tuna’ Platshorn previously held the record for the longest cannabis-only sentence, having served just shy of 30 years.
Next month Antonio will start his 37th year in prison. Bascaró was originally sentenced in 1980 to 39 years in federal prison for helping smuggle cannabis from South America into Florida.
Bascaró was born in Cuba, and is actually considered to be a war hero in his home country. Per Clemency Report:
Antonio is a historic figure in two ways. First, he has been in prison longer for marijuana than anyone in United States history — nearly 35-year years. Second, this amazing man was a Cuban war hero who battled Fidel Castro during the revolution and again during the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion.
In 1958, Antonio crashed a plane that is now featured in Cuba’s Museum of the Revolution. Antonio, captured, had breakfast with Raúl Castro — Fidel’s brother and now Cuba’s official leader — who tried to convince the young pilot to change sides and head the revolutionary Air Force. Antonio refused.
Antonio had no prior offenses, his case involved no violence or other controlled substances, and the seller and buyer he was working for were both released from prison in the mid-90s.
Yet Antonio continues to sit in a prison cell in Florida, as he has for the better part of four decades. From what I have read, he is confined to a wheelchair and has been a model inmate in every way.
Florida has recently legalized medical cannabis, and I’d imagine will legalize adult-use sooner than later as well, so why is Mr. Bascaró not free? Why are consumers not fighting harder to make it happen?
What cannabis consumers can (and should) do to help cannabis POWs
It surprises many people when they learn that there so many sitting in prison for cannabis in states that have voted to legalize.
Hardworking cannabis activist Adela Falk keeps a cannabis prisoner database on a site called pow420.com. The Obama Administration issued a slew of pardons and commutations right before he left office, so some of the names can fortunately be removed.
However, sadly, many names will remain. As US News recently highlighted, cannabis prisoners Michael Pelletier and John Knock were not among those receiving a pardon or sentence commutation.
Cannabis consumers need to realize that when they are going in to purchase a legal pre-roll, they are doing something that others are serving years in prison for.
All cannabis consumers and supporters need to fight so that others are as free as they are. Cannabis will never be truly legal until all cannabis prisoners are home to their families.
One of the biggest things that cannabis consumers can do to help cannabis prisoners is to learn and share their stories. As Jeff Mizanskey’s case clearly shows, if enough voices unite in calling for justice, good things can happen and good people like Mr. Mizanskey can go home and spend valuable time with their families.
Jeff Mizanskey’s case, and cases of other freed cannabis POWs, show that petitions can and do work. When corrections officials and politicians see that large numbers of people support taking a second look at a person’s case, they will do it as history has shown.
I have had several of my family members get convicted of cannabis offenses and had to serve time as a result. Their sentences weren’t nearly as long as some people’s, but they were long enough to learn the harsh realities of incarceration.
What many have told me several times is that getting letters from outside of the cell walls was their favorite thing. It helped them know that people still cared about them, and that people were fighting for them. Go to pow420.com and write as many of them letters as possible with words of encouragement.
In addition to the other things mentioned, people need to do the obvious which is contact leaders in the corrections industry and elected officials and let them know that no one deserves to be locked in a cage for a plant that has been found to be 114 times safer than alcohol.