The words, “I’m Jeff & I’m free,” printed on a black Show-Me Cannabis T-shirt along with the date he was released – Sept. 1 – made Jeff Mizanskey easy to spot among the crowd at MU National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and MU Students for Sensible Drug Policy’s event Wednesday night. After nearly 22 years in prison, Mizanskey showed he still had high spirits as he lifted up his black shirt to reveal a colorful tie-dyed NORML shirt underneath before he sat down to tell his story.
After being caught with marijuana in a motel room in 1996, Mizanskey was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, as it was his third drug-related offense.
The campaign for Mizanskey’s release began down the hall from where Wednesday’s event was taking place in the Arts and Science building, said Dan Viets, Mizsankey’s attorney and Show-Me Cannabis board of directors chairman. At a bi-annual conference sponsored by Missouri NORML and Show-Me Cannabis, Jeff’s son, Chris Mizanskey, drew their attention to his father’s case a few years ago.
Viets said that he was skeptical at first of what he heard from Chris Mizanskey. When they looked into Jeff Mizanskey’s case, they began their work to free him. MU students collected petition signatures urging Jeff Mizanskey’s release and traveled to Jefferson City to speak with representatives. With support from activists across the state, Gov. Jay Nixon commuted Jeff Mizanskey’s sentence over the summer to make him eligible for parole consideration.
On Sept. 1, Jeff Mizanskey left his maximum security prison, where he spent over a third of his life, for the first time.
“Walking out of that door, that was great,” Jeff Mizanskey said at the event.
The event took place exactly seven weeks after Jeff Mizanskey was released. MU SSDP President Tyler Elder said the event was a “milestone” for Legalize Mizzou, a coalition between MU SSDP and MU NORML. He said he hoped the event would motivate students to get involved and bring awareness to the issues surrounding the criminalization of marijuana
The packed room quietly listened as Jeff Mizanskey spoke of some of the harsh conditions he endured while in prison.
“There were so many cockroaches running around you couldn’t count them,”Jeff Mizanskey said. “The toilets would freeze up in the wintertime. You had to actually break the ice before you could go to the bathroom.”
In addition to brutal living conditions, Jeff Mizanskey said he needed to look out for his safety and that drugs were a prevalent problem in prison. He said when inmates found out he was incarcerated for drug-related crimes, he would often be pressured to smuggle in drugs.
Jeff Mizanskey said a few options exist in this situation: work for them, fight or “become one of their little girls.”
“There’s a lot of nonviolent guys in there who have to become violent to survive,” Jeff Mizanskey said.
Jeff Mizanskey said the laws that allow repeated rapists to be released after a few years only to be incarcerated again, “like they have a key to the place,” while locking up nonviolent offenders for life, need to be changed. He said it not only has an effect on the prisoners, but also their families too — including his own.
“It wasn’t just me that got hurt,” Jeff Mizanskey said. “My family got hurt. We went from a middle-class family to a dirt-poor family that lost everything.”
Although Jeff Mizanskey started smoking marijuana at the age of 11, he doesn’t advocate for young people to smoke cannabis in part because he never wants them to experience what he did. Jeff Mizanskey said the youth are the U.S.’ most precious resource that is being destroyed by incarceration for nonviolent crimes.
“The insanity of Jeff’s situation is really emblematic of the situation hundreds of thousands of Americans are facing right now,” Viets said.
According to “The War On Marijuana in Black and White”, a report conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union, over eight million marijuana arrests were made in the U.S. between 2001 and 2010. In 2010, someone was arrested for marijuana every 37 seconds, and states combined spent over $3.6 billion enforcing marijuana possession laws.
That’s why Viets and Show-Me Cannabis are currently working to change the laws by submitting an initiative petition that would amend the Missouri constitution to allow for the legalization of medical marijuana.
New Approach Missouri, a campaign committee supported by Show-Me Cannabis, formed for the sole purpose of passing the initiative. The committee submitted two initiative petitions to the Secretary of State’s office Oct. 8, according to Show-Me Cannabis’ website.
Viets said New Approach Missouri is planning to file a revised version later this week that will have minor changes. Show-Me Cannabis hopes to have the petition approved by December so they can start gathering the 160,000 signatures needed to put the bill on the November 2016 ballot, Viets said.
“If we could get this on the ballot, there’s almost no doubt it will pass,” Viets said.
In addition to the Show-Me Cannabis’ initiative petitions, MU NORML and MU SSDP are working to help gather signatures for a local petition spearheaded by Mid-Missouri NORML that would allow for the cultivation of up to six cannabis plants in one’s home.
Elder said Legalize Mizzou has collected at least 15 signatures and will continue to collect more with 10 people circulating the petition. In total, a little over 2,500 signatures would need to be collected, according to section 127 of the City Charter. MU NORML President Benton Berigan said in an email that Legalize Mizzou's goal is to collect at least 5,000 signatures by the summer of 2016 to ensure they obtain the minimum number of valid registered voters’ signatures. If city council chooses not to pass the proposed ordinance, it will be placed on the November 2016 ballot.
“I do feel confident,” Elder said. “2,600 signatures, it’s very low, and Columbia has such high levels of support for the cause. I really believe it will be done.”
Jeff Mizanskey said he feels the bills have an excellent chance of being passed and will continue to speak from his heart about what he has gone through. For now, though, he is enjoying his newfound freedom and said that his fondest memories from the past seven weeks have been spending time with his family, including his great granddaughter and grandson for the very first time, and friends.
“I’m hoping to have a whole lot more life again,” Jeff Mizanskey said.