Life sentences without the possibility of parole (WPOP) were a growth industry in the world of incarceration in the later decades of the 20th century, from the 1970s into the 1990s. Now, well into the 21st century, many of the states of the union, and their crowded prison systems, struggle to cope with the consequences.
Part of the reason for WPOP’s popularity was the sense that the “war on drugs” was proving futile; thus the desire to grasp at ever more powerful weapons to achieve progress in the war. Accordingly, WPOP sentences, in some circumstances called “three strikes and you’re out” sentences, applied often in the context of illegal drug trades or possession.
A recent decision by the governor of Missouri has received a good deal of national attention because it is one of many signs that things are headed the other way: authorities are calling a truce in the war on drugs or, at the least, they are muzzling the biggest guns.
The Mizanskey Sentence
Gov. Jay Nixon commuted the sentence of Jeff Mizanskey, a 61-year-old man with three non-violent marijuana convictions. Nixon has been in the national spotlight for a long time, since he was an unsuccessful candidate for a U.S. Senate seat more than 30 years ago. Further, he has no particular reason to curry favor with voters, and that itself might add weight to this commutation. When his current term as governor expires, Nixon will have served in that office as long as the state’s constitution allows and will likely head into retirement.
Even more important for readers of MJINews: the commutation of Mizanskey’s sentence is just part of a broader trend within the state of Missouri, where campaigns for the liberalization of marijuana laws are gaining traction.
In a recent interview, John Payne, the executive director of an activist reform group, Show Me Cannabis, an organization that worked to bring Mizanskey’s draconian sentence to the attention of the public, explained how the commutation had come about.
“We partnered with people all across the political spectrum, including a number of Republicans, in the state house.” A bill that would have freed Mizanskey outright made some early progress, then stalled over constitutional concerns. But the number of supporters of that bill helped persuade Nixon that, in Payne’s words, “there was no political downside to this.”
The commutation didn’t set Mizanskey free. “That would have been even better,” Payne said. But it did make the inmate eligible for parole, and since by all accounts he has been a model prisoner, that could come quickly, as early as August.
Other Prisoners, Other Fronts
Are there a lot of other people in prison in Missouri for analogous reasons, with similarly draconian sentences?
Nobody had quite the same sentence under quite the same circumstance, but Payne said, there are other sympathetic war-on-marijuana related inmates and “once Jeff is out, we will talk about their cases.”
Show Me Cannabis helped pass a bill last year that repealed the prior and persistent drug use statute and that reduced the criminal penalties for the possession of small amounts of marijuana, eliminating jail time for the possession of less than 10 grams. The organization’s ultimate goal is a lot more ambitious than a lessening of the severity of such sentences. SMC advocates that cannabis be legalized and regulated in a manner analogous to alcohol. To this end it hopes to have an initiative on the ballot in 2016.
What are the odds of getting an initiative on that ballot? Payne said, “the odds of having something on the ballot are very good,” but it isn’t yet clear precisely what type of initiative. SMC is now engaged in opinion polling to decide whether it should press for a Colorado-style legalization, or try something more modest. Payne recognizes that Missouri is a conservative state, and the polling shows that a broad medical marijuana bill will be an easier sell.
According to Payne, “On a generic question about the legalization of medicinal marijuana, ‘yes’ polls in the high 60s to the low 70s.”
The state does allow CBD oil use for intractable epilepsy. SMC participated in a strenuous effort this year to pass a bill that would have expanded the permissible uses of the oil.
Legislative Meltdowns Notwithstanding …
“I think the governor would have signed such a bill had it passed this year. It didn’t get to his desk before the session ended because of a legislative meltdown that had nothing to do with the merits,” Payne said. Business came to a halt as the Speaker of the House, John Diehl Jr., resigned after revelations that he had exchanged inappropriate sexually-charged text messages with an intern.
There was another merits-be-damned meltdown in the Senate. The Republicans passed a right-to-work bill through the aggressive use of a rare procedural maneuver, and the Democrats retaliated by slowing consideration of anything else.
Given the exogenous nature of the failure of the CBD bill this year, Payne is optimistic about its prospects in coming sessions. Also, he believes a bill on industrial hemp stands a strong chance.
One creative attorney in Missouri has recently invoked the state constitution’s Right to Farm clause on his client’s behalf. There is a general expectation that this will fail. Payne doesn’t argue with that consensus, but he does think it makes sense to wage the battle for legalization on every possible front, so he approves of the effort.