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How a Missouri 'pothead' became poster boy for compassion on drugs

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has commuted Jeff Mizanskey’s life sentence for marijuana offenses, allowing him a parole hearing – an indication of the public and political shift on draconian drug laws.

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    A billboard seeks the release of Jeff Mizanskey, sentenced to life in prison without parole for marijuana offenses. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has commuted Mr. Mizanskey’s sentence, allowing him a parole hearing
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Back in the day, Jeff Mizanskey was a bit of a pothead, at least that’s how the police in Sedalia, Mo., knew him. The third time Mr. Mizanskey got busted for weed – during a 1993 sting at a Super 8 motel – he lost his case at trial and received a mind-boggling punishment: Life in prison, with no chance of getting out.

In a major sign that US governors have joined the larger public in questioning the wisdom of draconian drug laws, Gov. Jay Nixon on Friday commuted Mr. Mizanskey’s sentence, allowing him a parole hearing to plead his case for freedom. He has a good shot of getting out, given that his only foul-ups during his 22 years in prison were putting mail in the wrong slot and having a messy cell floor.

It’s well-documented that the public mood has shifted dramatically on the topic of pot, with well over half of Americans now favoring its legalization. Meanwhile, four states have approved recreational marijuana, and 23 allow medical marijuana. President Obama has pardoned nonviolent drug offenders, and the US Justice Department has vowed to stop prosecuting low-level drug offenders at the federal level.

But that shift in thinking has left governors like Mr. Nixon in a quandary. What happens to nonviolent offenders serving major sentences for crimes around which the law has changed? Most specifically, the tough three-strikes-and-you’re-out law that took parole off the table for Mizanskey has been scaled back by the Missouri legislature.

"It's a very serious amount of time," Mr. Nixon told KMBC in February after agreeing to take a look at Mizanskey’s situation. "If the laws change after someone is sentenced, then you want to give those things a close look.”

The year before Mizanskey was busted for his minor role in a trafficking deal, Pew found that 73 percent of Americans favored the death penalty for “major drug traffickers,” and 57 percent believed police should be able to search houses of “known drug dealers” without a search warrant. Today, only 32 percent of Americans favor mandatory prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

That attitude shift has begun to dovetail with strained prison budgets to force the issue in front of governors and lawmakers.

In Colorado, Gov. John Hickenlooper said as early as last year that legalizing marijuana in his state was a “mistake.” But last month, Mr. Hickenlooper agreed that legalization had begun to have positive financial impact on his state, with few of the feared drawbacks.

In Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal signed a limited medical marijuana bill that would allow people with a specific set of ailments to receive non-psychoactive marijuana oil. Gov. Deal has also led a major criminal justice reform system aimed at giving judges more leeway to allow nonviolent drug offenders to get treatment rather than automatically send them to jail.

And in a widely circulated column in the Dallas Morning News, Republican state representative David Simpson recently used Scripture to argue for prohibition repeal in the Lone Star State.

“Should we be concerned for our friends and neighbors who abuse a substance or activity?” Mr. Simpson wrote. “Yes, we should help them through sincere and voluntary engagement, but not with force and violence.”

To be sure, Mizanskey, to some, remains a hazard to society, who deserves to die behind bars. For one, Jeff Mittelhauser, who prosecuted the case, told the Riverfront Times he didn’t think the sentence was too excessive.

“Considering his numerous prior convictions involving the distribution of controlled substances and considering that he had a connection to … the Southwest United States to bring in 100 pounds a week of marijuana to distribute, yes, I believe his sentence was a fair one,” Mr. Mittelhauser told the paper in 2013. Mizanskey, for the record, was convicted for possessing and intending to distribute five pounds of marijuana. He was never indicted for conspiracy to distribute more than that.

Nevertheless, while much of the legalization focus has been on states like Colorado, where pot tourism is now a hot topic, the plight of thousands of Americans serving long sentences for marijuana crimes has given legalization advocates room to address the steep human cost of marijuana prohibition.

About 80 percent of the 3,200 nonviolent offenders serving life sentences in the US are in prison on drug offenses, and 27 percent of all prisoners in the US are behind bars for marijuana offenses, according to an ACLU report. The US Sentencing Commission has reported that convicted drug traffickers spend an average of 34 months in prison.

“While prohibitionists like to claim that advocates only care about getting high or are all about making money with a new industry, the case of Jeff Mizanskey demonstrates … the compassion at the heart of our fight,” writes legalization advocate Anthony Johnson on marijuanapolitics.com

Mizanskey’s case had been largely forgotten except by his family when the Riverfront Times in 2013 did a long story about the construction worker, detailing his recreational use of marijuana and his occasional small-time sales to support his own habit.

His case was picked up by Show-Me Marijuana, a Missouri legalization group, which created a poster aimed at bringing attention to Mizanskey’s plight. His son, Chris Mizanskey, who was 13 when his dad went to jail, also began to lobby actively for his father’s release. Since going to prison, Mizanskey has become a foreman of the furniture factory at Jefferson City Correctional Center, making 73 cents an hour.

“My dad is, and always has been, a good man,” Chris writes on a Change.org petition page. “He taught my brother and I all about construction and a good work ethic. He has never been violent and he is a model prisoner. And over the 20 years he has been in that little cell, he has watched as violent criminals, rapists and murderers have ‘paid their debts’ and left – sometimes just to return a few months later.

“My father is 61 years old, and has been in prison since he was 41,” he continues. “His parents – my grandparents – have since passed. While my dad has been trapped behind bars … kids and grandkids have been born into our family who have never even met the man…. All my dad wants to do is be a productive part of society, work, and pay taxes, be with his family. And I want my dad back.”

Before Friday, that seemed out of the question. On Saturday, friends began raising money to help Jeff Mizanskey transition out of prison and into a second chance at life. He's expected to get his parole hearing this summer.

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