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'Longest-serving cannabis offender' to be released early from 90-year prison sentence

Richard DeLisi was sentenced in 1989 for conspiring to traffic more than 100 pounds of marijuana into the U.S. from Jamaica.

By Alicia Victoria Lozano

After serving more than three decades in prison for nonviolent cannabis offenses, a 71-year-old man is hoping to spend Christmas this year with his family.

Richard DeLisi, who was sentenced in 1989 to 90 years in prison for conspiring to traffic more than 100 pounds of cannabis into the U.S. from Jamaica, could be released as early as Dec. 4 amid failing health and the worsening coronavirus pandemic, according to the Florida Department of Corrections. He is described as the "longest-serving cannabis offender in the country" by the Last Prisoner Project, a nonprofit organization working towards criminal justice reform for marijuana-related crimes. Lawyers from the Last Prisoner Project have been working pro bono to help secure DeLisi’s release from South Bay Correctional Facility in Palm Beach County, where hundreds of inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus since March.

“It has been a lifetime of heartache and loss,” said DeLisi’s son, Rick DeLisi. “We look forward to making the memories that a family should be able to make. I can’t wait to know my father is a free man.”

Rick DeLisi was just 11 years old when his dad was sentenced to spend what amounted to the rest of his life behind bars. Relatives were initially hesitant to share the news with him, instead waiting several weeks before explaining why Richard DeLisi was unable to return his son’s phone calls.

It wasn’t until Rick DeLisi was in his 30s that he came to fully understand what happened to his father.

“It’s a heavy burden,” he said. “You constantly hope for some change, and when you put in these petitions, these clemency appeals, and nothing ever budges at all, you feel like you're never going to unlock the door.”

In the time Richard DeLisi has been imprisoned, many of his loved ones have died, including his parents, his wife and one of his sons. His daughter was badly injured in a car accident and remains paralyzed.

The threat of coronavirus has spread as DeLisi’s health declined. He has diabetes, hypertension, arthritis and has suffered a series of mini-strokes, putting him in the highest risk category if he were to contract Covid-19.

As of Thursday, 421 inmates and 86 staff had tested positive at South Bay Correctional Facility, according to the Florida Department of Corrections. Statewide, nearly 17,000 inmates have tested positive. Currently, no inmates are in medical isolation at the prison where DeLisi is detained.

Advocates for DeLisi have worked for decades to secure his early release from prison, citing both health and legal concerns. They have argued that he was never charged or convicted of a violent crime and was instead used as an example by an overzealous judge who wanted to send a warning to other would-be drug dealers.

But the drug DeLisi was convicted of conspiring to sell is now legal in 15 states, two territories and Washington, D.C. Florida, where DeLisi was convicted and sentenced, is one of 34 states with a medical cannabis program.

Earlier this month, voters in five states approved measures to legalize some form of cannabis use. Oregon became the first state to make possession of small amounts of harder drugs, including cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, violations not punishable by jail time.

Despite the changing attitudes surrounding drug use, law enforcement officers made 663,000 arrests for cannabis-related offenses in 2018, which amounted to 40 percent of all drug arrests that year, according to FBI data.

As more states decriminalize and legalize cannabis, draconian prison sentences need to be revisited, said Chiara Juster, a marijuana criminal reform advocate and lawyer on DeLisi’s legal team.

“Across the nation, cannabis won wherever she was on the ballot this year,” Juster said. “That reflects the broader acknowledgment that the war on drugs has been the war on people. We have a moral obligation to decarcerate these prisoners.”

DeLisi and his older brother, Ted DeLisi, were convicted by a Polk County judge of trafficking cannabis, conspiracy to traffic cannabis and violating the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organization Act, a federal law passed in 1970 that allows for added criminal penalties for acts performed as part of a criminal organization.

Ted DeLisi appealed his conspiracy conviction and was released from prison in 2013. Richard DeLisi appealed that same year but was unsuccessful.

Prosecutors argued throughout the brothers’ two-week trial that Richard DeLisi was the “mastermind” of an elaborate plot to fly in 1,500 pounds of cannabis from Jamaica to the U.S. But lawyers for DeLisi said he was the victim of entrapment. A trusted friend who had become an informant for Polk County law enforcement devised the plan, not DeLisi, his lawyers argued in court.

According to court transcripts, lawyers representing the brothers expected their sentences to be between 22 and 27 years, which would have been consistent with the sentencing scoresheet adopted by Florida’s judicial system in the 1980s. Judge Dennis Maloney, however, sentenced the brothers to three consecutive 30-year sentences.

It was the same year that former President George H.W. Bush created the Office of National Drug Control Policy and appointed the nation’s first drug czar. In his first nationally televised address from the Oval Office, Bush called drugs "the gravest domestic threat facing our nation."

"Who's responsible? Let me tell you straight out — everyone who uses drugs, everyone who sells drugs, and everyone who looks the other way," he said in the 1989 address.

The war on drugs was in full swing when the DeLisis was sentenced just two months later.

“They made an example out of him,” said Mariah Daly, a legal fellow with the Last Prisoner Project. The racketeering act "was originally enacted to take care of mobsters, but it’s being used for low-level drug offenders.”

Rick DeLisi, Richard’s son, now lives in Amsterdam and has a difficult time reconciling his father’s prison sentence with changing attitudes surrounding cannabis. He said he doesn’t know many people who haven’t at least tried cannabis and calls the American prison system “a vampire that feeds off those at the bottom.”

“I can’t even count the money we’ve spent trying to get him out,” he said.

When Richard DeLisi is finally released from prison, Rick DeLisi intends to pack up his family and fly to the U.S. despite the pandemic.

“I need to receive him," he said. "I need my 1-year-old to know her grandpa.”

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