In 1994, when Jeff Mizanskey was sentenced to life in prison, the country was already several years into waging a meat-grinder drug war against its own citizens. In Missouri, courts locked away thousands on mandatory minimum sentences that could be triggered by anything from several pounds of cocaine to a joint's worth of cannabis. Two decades later, Riverfront Times staff writer Ray Downs broke the story of Mizanskey's shocking punishment in a 2013 piece, titled "How a Missouri Man Could Die in Prison for Weed."
But Mizanskey, the only Missouri prisoner serving a life sentence for solely cannabis-related drug charges, did not die in prison. Instead, his cause galvanized activists behind the state's legalization movement — and in 2015, then-Governor Jay Nixon commuted the 60-year-old inmate's sentence, freeing him to face a world far different than the one he'd left.
The former inmate became an activist, and he spent the next several years working on the campaigns that in 2018 led to Missouri voters approving medical cannabis through a ballot initiative.
Now 67, Mizanskey is still working to further Missouri's legalization efforts. He's also a board memeber of the nonprofit Cana Convict Project, which aims to aid "non-violent cannabis inmates with their release from prison" and reintegration into society.
In an interview last week with the RFT, the icon of Missouri's cannabis movement reflects on where he's been — and how far Missouri has come.
Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
After getting out of prison, you spent years advocating for campaigns to legalize medical marijuana in Missouri. What's your impression of the outcomes so far?
Well, what I'd like to see is complete legalization on the federal level, or at least, at the very minimum, decriminalization. But people now are accepting it, they see that, since legalization, the sky hasn't fallen, it's not as bad as what we were all told it was. They're finding out how helpful it is for people that really need it for medical conditions. I think it's a big step. It's going to help a lot of our people — hell, it helps the arthritis that I have. And that's great. But I think we still have a long way to go.
You've had a chance to patronize some of Missouri's new medical cannabis dispensaries. What was that like?
I was actually the first one here to buy legal cannabis in Pettis County. It was strange — I mean, after spending almost 23 years in prison for cannabis, and now all of a sudden I can go into the store right here? It wasn't a mile from where I was originally arrested in 1993. I was almost afraid to go in the dispensary, you know, because everything in the back of my mind, the feelings come up when you walk into a place like that. I was thinking, "Oh my god, what am I doing here? Should I be here?"
You've had the chance to travel Missouri and other states as an activist and speaker. Do people still recognize you?
All over the country. It's kind of surprising when you're somewhere that you've never been and people come up, "Oh, I know you," and they come out with your name and start telling your story and start asking you questions. It's kind of strange but good in a way. Hopefully, it can help hundreds, thousands of other people through the Cana Convict Project.
What's your takeaway from the recent actions of Missouri Governor Mike Parson, who has to date commuted the sentences of eight drug offenders sentenced under the same law that put you in prison for so many years?
I've been reading about them, since I would like to apply for a pardon to get my record clean. But there's so much other stuff going on. I'm more worried about our brothers and sisters that are still in prison than I am with me — hell, I'm 67 years old, got cannabis on my record, and personally I don't give a shit. But there are so many that are young people that are getting out that it makes a big problem with, because they do have to find jobs.
You say that you're waiting for full legalization to hit Missouri — are there any legislative efforts you're backing in that area?
I've not seen any bills yet that I'm totally happy with, but I doubt whether I'll ever be with other people writing them. There has to be a way to help people to get out of prison. If the bill passes, you oughta be able to push a button and poof, let all these people out, and their records are clean. I mean, just think of how much money just our state would save if we released prisoners that are being held on nonviolent crimes such as cannabis.
Your journey has taken you from a prison cell to lobbying legislators. What do you see when you reflect on Missouri's cannabis movement in the years since your release?
It seems like we take three or four steps forward and one or two back, but we're getting there. I believe there's a lot more cannabis and hemp can give us. People are finally waking up to the fact, and I think it's going to take time. I'm 67 years old. I hope I'm still here when it happens, but I think it's on its way.
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