Longform

Meet the Americans Serving Life in Jail for Weed

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Under fluorescent green and orange light, the DeLisis then crowded around a pay phone outside. They were both over six feet and had to crouch to make the call. When a middle-aged man in the Midwest picked up, Teddy asked the name of the place, jotting down details for his illiterate but insistent brother. Had they ever been out of the country? The man on the line wanted to know.

"It took big balls to do what me and my brother did."

"Don't worry; we'll find it," Teddy assured before hanging up the phone. He wasn't so sure. Still, the two headed down to Miami to apply for passports. Without knowing a lick of -Spanish, they soon boarded airplanes for the first time and set off on a journey to locate the 30-hectare farm. Besides the clothes on their backs, the self-described hippies were armed only with a black-and-white picture and a personal stash of weed.

"We headed up into the mountains," Richie DeLisi remembers today. "It took big balls to do what me and my brother did."

The DeLisis had come to South Florida in the late 1960s as the result of a freak accident. Back home, their father, Theodore Sr., was considered a villain for causing the accidental death of a teenaged girl. Exiled from their home in Queens, they booked it to Deerfield Beach for a fresh start.

But they never escaped their reputations as roughnecks. Not long after opening a Volkswagen repair shop in Pompano, they started using the business as a way to flip dime bags of weed. Eventually, they began moving ounces up the East Coast to their native New York. When they stumbled upon the magazine at 7-Eleven, they finally considered heading to the source.

Deciding to go big time, they purchased a place in the Rio Hacha desert, the one they'd seen in the mag, for $9,000. A fleet of airplanes came next -- an investment that would turn a side business into a $55 million drug empire over the course of four years. When the Florida Department of Law Enforcement took the DeLisi brothers down in 1980, the agency would describe it as one of the biggest investigations in its history.

But even though newspapers declared them "armed and dangerous," the DeLisis were never accused of any violent crime. Even when they were arrested a second time, in 1989, they were charged only with trafficking, conspiracy, and racketeering. Although Teddy got out on an appeal last year, Richard DeLisi has been in prison for 26 years and counting. He's one of more than a dozen nonviolent criminals around the country currently serving either life sentences or de facto life sentences for smuggling pot -- and one of the seven who were tried and convicted in Florida.

Reformers say the long sentences handed out to relatively harmless pot dealers during the War on Drugs should be revisited. In the 1980s, when crack cocaine ravaged the nation, lawmakers introduced mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, and tough prosecutors tacked on conspiracy charges that could add decades of prison time. Now, however, 23 states plus Washington, D.C., have legalized medical marijuana, and polls indicate that 80 percent of Floridians will follow suit by voting for a constitutional amendment in the November 4 election. Why are taxpayers still footing the multimillion-dollar bill to incarcerate guys peddling a substance we've come to think of as medicine?

In December 1989, Richard DeLisi was sentenced to 90 years behind bars: 30 for trafficking marijuana, 30 for conspiracy to traffic it, and 30 more for racketeering. If he'd been convicted after 1995, when Florida enacted a Truth in Sentencing Law, he'd have to serve at least 85 percent of his sentence, which would have been 76 and a half years.

As it stands, DeLisi has earned years off of his sentence for things like good behavior and getting his GED. His release date is set for 2026, meaning the 65-year-old will be 77 when he gets out, if he lives that long. Though he is not an entirely sympathetic character, he is now in his twilight years and in poor health. Since he's been incarcerated, his family has fallen to ruins amid poverty and drug addiction. A hearing set for November 7 will determine whether he has one of his felony conspiracy charges reduced to a second-degree misdemeanor. If not, DeLisi will become the nation's longest-serving inmate for a nonviolent, marijuana-related crime.

"I've watched murderers, rapists, and child molesters all get out of jail before me," he said last month via phone from the South Bay Correctional Facility. "When I was smuggling, I always knew the consequences. But never in my wildest dreams did I imagine it would end up like this."


Beth Curtis registered the domain lifeforpot.org in 2009. Her brother, John Knock, had just lost his last appeal. Indicted in 1994, he would be forced to wrangle with his sentence: two life terms plus 20 years. At the time, Curtis wanted to satisfy her own curiosity and find out who else had been given the same deal, either federally or on a state level. "Plus, people didn't believe me when I told them my brother was in jail for life over pot and hadn't also killed someone," says the blond woman, who lives in Zanesville, Ohio. Her tally lists 22 people sentenced to life for nonviolent pot offenses, and she says she's not sure it's entirely comprehensive. DeLisi is one of the people for whom she advocates.

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Allie Conti was a fellow at Miami New Times and a staff writer for New Times Broward-Palm Beach, where her writing won awards from the Florida Press Club and the Society of Professional Journalists. She's now the senior staff writer at Vice and a contributor to the New York Times, New York Magazine, and the Atlantic.