Richard DeLisi received a 90-year prison sentence in 1989. This was for conspiring to send a large quantity of cannabis US-wards. Now 71, he might go free after 31 years due to his failing health, which puts him at an increased risk of Covid-19 infection. He has served over twice as much as the average sentence for murder.

President George H.W. Bush: drugs are "the gravest domestic threat facing our nation", so let's put someone away for 31 years for importing cannabis. Photo: official portrait

President George H.W. Bush: drugs are “the gravest domestic threat facing our nation”, so let’s put someone away for 31 years for importing cannabis. Photo: official portrait

Why he might go free

DeLisi is held at the South Bay Correctional Facility in Palm Beach, Florida. Covid-19 has struck 421 incarcerees and 86 staff. DeLisi has arthritis, diabetes and hypertension and has endured a number of mini strokes. This leaves him in the category at the highest risk. The Last Prisoner Project is a non-profit organisation devoted to freeing people imprisoned for crimes stemming from cannabis. It stated that DeLisi’s 31 years of incarceration were the longest time served by anyone in the United States for a cannabis-related crime.

DeLisi’s son, Rick, remarked, “It has been a lifetime of heartache and loss…. I can’t wait to know my father is a free man.” He was only 11 when his pa was put away for the remainder of his life. At first, his family didn’t want to tell him. So weeks passed before they informed him of why his dad wasn’t returning his phone calls. He added, “It’s a heavy burden. 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.”

During DeLisi’s 31 years behind bars, many people who were close to him have passed away. These include his parents and wife and one son. His daughter was left paralysed by a car accident. For decades, people have advocated for the setting free of DeLisi. They protest that he was not violent, and an overenthusiastic judge used him as an example to deter other potential drug dealers.

During his two-week trial, prosecutors accused DeLisi of being the mastermind behind a complicated plot to transport 1,500 pounds of cannabis to the United States from Jamaica by air. His lawyers allege that he was subjected to entrapment: it was a trusted friend who was a police informant rather than DeLisi himself who concocted the plan.

It is now legal to use cannabis recreationally in 15 states and Washington, DC. Florida permits it for medical purposes. In 1989, however, the war on drugs was at its height. In President George H.W. Bush’s first televisual address, he described drugs as “the gravest domestic threat facing our nation.” DeLisi was accused of infringing the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organization (Rico) act. This federal law dating back to 1970 enables additional punishment for acts that are part of a criminal organisation. Mariah Daly, one lawyer for the Last Prisoner Project, groused that this act was originally intended to target mobsters, not drug offenders.

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