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Meet the Americans Serving Life in Jail for Weed

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"Who in Florida is going to be afraid of Richard DeLisi getting out of prison?" asks Greg Newburn, of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "This is going to cost taxpayers a lot of money, and you have to wonder what the real benefit is in terms of public safety."


The DeLisis are far from the only ones to cost taxpayers so much money for what might be described as a victimless crime. Although Richie is the only one in Florida facing such a sentence in a state case, on a federal level, more than a dozen are serving either life or de facto life sentences for marijuana. Seven of them were tried in Florida.

There's also Charles "Fred" Cundiff, a 66-year-old who so far has served 22 years of a life sentence. He suffers from arthritis, and taxpayers have paid for his back surgery as well as treatments for skin cancer and vision problems, on top of the cost of incarcerating him.

John Knock, Claude Duboc, and Albert Madrid were all busted as part of a reverse-sting operation for trafficking marijuana and hashish between 1984 and 1993. Knock was sentenced in Gainesville to two life terms plus 20 years. Duboc got life plus 240 months. Madrid got life without parole.

William Dekle, a 62-year-old from Gainesville, was sentenced to life without parole as a first-time, nonviolent, marijuana-only offender in 1991. Andrew Cox, a firefighter, had two prior marijuana-related offenses before his 2008 Gainesville trial and was sentenced to life without parole.

But perhaps the most pathetic case in Florida belongs to Leopoldo Hernandez-Miranda. He's a 75-year-old Cuban fisherman with a fourth-grade education who was sentenced on a possession charge (but acquitted of a conspiracy charge) stemming from the fact that he worked as a day laborer on a house that stored marijuana.

Soon, these men will beg the government for mercy. Kennedy and Holland, the two New York attorneys who petitioned Obama, will see their plan come to fruition. In April, U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole announced that the government, looking to reduce the prison population, will be recommending reduced sentences for some nonviolent federal prisoners who have already served ten years and "likely would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense today." This criterion was especially appealing to marijuana offenders. Groups like the ACLU and Families Against Mandatory Minimums have banded together under the banner of the Clemency Project 2014 to help inmates present their cases for consideration. Releases are slated to begin in November 2015.

Geriatric weed smugglers are getting sympathy from even the executive office.

Although the Attorney General's Office has conducted mass pardons in the past, Cole's program is unique in that it is geared toward people who would likely have received lesser sentences had they been tried today. That means many of these cases will involve marijuana, a substance that is being slowly legalized across the country. Any federal prisoner facing any crime that doesn't involve child exploitation or violence is allowed to sign up and be paired with a volunteer attorney.

But DeLisi isn't eligible for Obama's program. First of all, he wasn't tried federally. Second, it's relevant only to first-time offenders. Although other geriatric weed smugglers are getting sympathy from even the executive office, DeLisi is left without many advocates. NORML says he's not a priority, given that he's a repeat offender dealing in huge quantities. Ask anyone familiar with trafficking cases and he'll likely say, "I remember that guy: Wasn't he the one bragging on Geraldo?"

Billy Corben, a South Florida documentarian behind both Cocaine Cowboys and Square Grouper, has become a historian of the drug war. Though he has never worked on any projects involving the DeLisis' case, he says there was a big difference between smugglers who sold pot and those who dealt in coke.

"Marijuana was a cash transaction, unlike cocaine, which was a consignment business," he explains. "It was much mellower, and the guys didn't even carry guns. The only examples you see of marijuana destroying peoples' lives is with these prison sentences. You wanna see the destruction of a family unit? Put someone away for 90 years."


Teddy DeLisi got out last year, when a judge decided to drop one of his conspiracy charges, which carried a 30-year sentence. An appeals court -decided that the only evidence against him -- fingerprints found on a map of South America -- wasn't enough to hold him.

Richie, however, was caught talking about the deal on tape and still sits in prison.

Ashley DeLisi, Richie's 29-year-old daughter, says the prison sentence ruined her life. Her father was sent away when she was only 4 years old. Her mother, Colette DeLisi, "went off the deep end and was devastated about the whole thing. She was too messed up to take care of us, and I ended up being a child who raises another child."

Ashley, who now lives in Wingo, Kentucky, says she dropped out of Hollywood Hills High School in the ninth grade to take care of her little brother, David. "I started experimenting with drugs and lost myself for a while," she relates. "But I made sure he had food and clothes the best way I could." In 2009, she says, both her mother and brother, in separate incidents, overdosed on OxyContin and died. She thinks things would have been different had Richie been around.

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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.