Jeff Mizanskey smiles as he walks away from cameras after being released from the Jefferson City Correctional Center in Missouri on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2015, after serving two decades of a life sentence. His release followed years of lobbying by relatives, lawmakers and others who argued that the sentence for a nonviolent marijuana-related charge was too stiff. (Justin L. Stewart, Columbia Missourian/AP)

Jeff Mizanskey, sentenced to life for pot, freed from Missouri prison

"I spent a third of my life in prison. It's a shame," says Jeff Mizanskey, now 62 after serving 20 years of a life sentence without parole for nonviolent marijuana-related convictions.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A man sentenced to life in prison without parole on a marijuana-related charge was freed Tuesday from a Missouri prison after being behind bars for two decades — a period in which the nation’s attitudes toward pot have steadily softened.

Family, friends, supporters and reporters flocked to meet Jeff Mizanskey as he stepped out of the Jefferson City Correctional Center into a sunny morning, wearing a new pair of white tennis shoes and a shirt that read “I’m Jeff & I’m free.”

“I spent a third of my life in prison,” said Mizanskey, now 62, who was greeted by his infant great-granddaughter. “It’s a shame.”

After a breakfast of steak and eggs with family, Mizanskey said, he planned to spend his post-prison life seeking a job and advocating for the legalization of marijuana. He criticized sentencing for some drug-related crimes as unfair and described his time behind bars as “hell.”

His release followed years of lobbying by relatives, lawmakers and others who argued that the sentence was too stiff and that marijuana should not be forbidden.

Mizanskey was sentenced in 1996 — the same year California became the first state to legalize marijuana for medical purposes. Medical marijuana is now legal in 23 states, and recreational marijuana has been legalized in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington state and Washington, D.C.

“The reason he’s getting out is because the public clearly has changed its opinion about marijuana, and it’s just one of many ways in which that has been reflected in recent years,” said Mizankey’s attorney, Dan Viets.

Such “extreme” cases could further fuel changing perceptions of nonviolent drug crimes, said Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Austin at Texas.

“These cases really become exhibit A in the need for sentencing reform,” said Deitch, an attorney and expert in criminal-justice policy.

Just last year, the heavily Republican Missouri Legislature passed a law to allow certain people with epilepsy to seek treatment with a marijuana extract containing little of the chemical that causes marijuana users to feel high and larger amounts of a chemical called cannabidiol, or CBD. The patients can include babies, Viets said.

“Nobody saw that coming,” he said. “That is a pretty radical statement.”

Police said he conspired to sell 6 pounds of marijuana to a dealer connected with Mexican drug cartels. At the time, the life-with-no-parole sentence was allowed under a Missouri law for repeat drug offenders. Mizanskey already had two drug convictions — one for possession and sale of marijuana in 1984 and another for possession in 1991.

He was the only Missouri inmate serving such a sentence for a nonviolent marijuana-related offense when Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon agreed in May to commute his sentence. The commutation allowed Mizanskey to argue for his freedom before a parole board, which granted his request in August.

Nixon’s actions are “a reflection of political confidence in changing norms around marijuana use,” said Cecelia Klingele, a criminal justice policy expert at the University of Wisconsin Law School.

The governor cited Mizanskey’s nonviolent record, noting that none of his offenses involved selling drugs to children. The law under which he was originally sentenced has since been changed.

Other states are reevaluating punishments for drug-possession crimes, motivated in large part by the high cost of imprisoning low-level, nonviolent offenders.

In Connecticut, a new law will make possession of small amounts of hard drugs, including heroin, cocaine and crack cocaine, a misdemeanor for a first-time offense, rather than allowing for the current maximum seven-year prison sentence. Nebraska and Alabama expect to save hundreds of millions of dollars by using new laws to cut down on the number of offenders locked up for possessing small amounts of drugs.

In Missouri, backers of two ballot initiatives to legalize pot have permission from the secretary of state to begin collecting signatures to put the issue before voters in 2016. Another petition proposes reducing sentences for nonviolent drug offenders who are serving time without opportunity for parole.

Mizanskey said he will not smoke marijuana now he’s free; he’s on parole, after all.

But if it ever becomes legal on the state and federal levels, Mizanskey said, “definitely.”
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