Before a couple run-ins with the law in the 1970s and 1980s, Richard DeLisi was living the good life. He owned a home and body shop in Deerfield Beach, Florida. He drove a truck. He had a wife and kids. To top it all off, he and his brother, Ted, had allegedly made millions moving marijuana from Colombia to Florida.
The pair had already been busted once, in 1975. Richard served just over a year, and Ted served four. But legal debts related to that conviction lured them back into the smuggling business a few years later. In 1988, they were nabbed again during a reverse sting operation involving a friend who turned out to be a confidential informant for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. A year later, they were charged with conspiracy, racketeering and trafficking more than 100 pounds of weed (although, prosecutors made the case that they’d moved thousands over the years). Both received 98-year convictions. Ted appealed and was released in 2013. Richard wasn’t so lucky.
This well exceeded judicial guidelines for recommended sentences at the time — the typical sentence for similar crimes was 12 to 17 years — which was likely a result of lingering, stiff-necked efforts related to the War on Drugs. “I was so shocked,” DeLisi tells me. He claims child molesters were sentenced by the very same court to no more than 10 years just moments before his sentence was uttered.
Nowadays, it seems unimaginable to be imprisoned for that long when the legal weed industry is booming — it’s expected to add $92 billion to the U.S. economy this year — and there are now fewer states that haven’t legalized THC for either medicinal or recreational purposes than states that have. In 2020 alone, Colorado’s weed shops sold 16.6 million edibles, more than 583,000 pounds of flower and 47,000 pounds of concentrate.
But states didn’t even begin passing medical marijuana laws until the 1990s. In fact, during a 1971 press conference, President Richard Nixon referred to drug abuse, including weed use, as “America’s public enemy number one.” Meanwhile, bills like the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 strengthened the system of mandatory minimum sentencing, even for low-level, nonviolent offenders.
For reasons like these, DeLisi’s case isn’t especially unique. In 1996, Way Quoe Long was incarcerated for conspiracy to manufacture and distribute marijuana (along with several related charges) in and near Fresno, California and sentenced to 50 years in prison (known as a “de facto life sentence” since he was in his 30s at the time). Twenty-one years earlier, Long had moved to the U.S. from Laos. “I grew up in a white town in Iowa,” he tells me. “I was pretty much the only Asian boy in school.” Regardless, he fell in with the stoners and musicians. Even back then, he grew weed plants in his bedroom’s window panes. “My mom always killed them,” he laughs.
Long moved to Northern California in the mid-1980s, where what began as an effort to supply himself and his friends with weed turned into something larger. “One thing led to another and I was like, ‘Damn, I could actually make a really good living,’” he tells me. “I was convicted of 3,200 plants.”
However, Long argues that he was “wrongly charged with running three farms of about 10,000 plants.” He believes that he was ratted out in 1995 by guys he didn’t even know after a search warrant was executed on a weed farm in Fresno — and a home in the nearby town of Tollhouse — where the government argued that he lived (however, as an appeal of his case filed in 2002 says, “The government presented contradictory theories as to whether Long resided” at the Fresno property). He also claims the guns police found, which resulted in additional charges, were wrongly attributed to him. “I was framed,” he tells me. “I was convicted before the trial was over.”
That said, the same appeal reads, “The record clearly demonstrates that Long was responsible in some managerial or organizational capacity for the marijuana growing.”
While his trial was being held, Long says he spent roughly two years in a county jail, where he claims they withheld food from him and overcharged for commissary items. “I lost maybe 30 pounds in two months,” he says. He also mentions that the water tasted like “sewage” and smelled like sulphur, so he’d always fill multiple cups at a time to let them air out in his cell.
Once convicted, Long was relocated to a federal prison in Central California, where he spent nearly 25 years. His time there was divided between the law library and the music area. He kept a Japanese stratocaster in his cell, and to this day, he loves all kinds of music from classical to death metal. But he didn’t hang around too many other prisoners. “It’s hard to find people to play music with,” he says.
For his part, Craig Cesal, who was handed a life sentence for (allegedly) conspiring to distribute “at least 3,000 but less than 10,000 kilograms” of marijuana from Mexico to the U.S. in 2003, had very few problems making friends in prison. A business degree from Illinois State University and some knowledge of the law made him popular among fellow prisoners who needed help writing and reading both personal and legal documents. “I had it better in prison than virtually anyone else,” he tells me.
Because of his life sentence, Cesal felt somewhat emboldened in prison. It wouldn’t matter, for example, if the guards took away his “good time,” a system by which prisoners can earn time off their sentences, so he regularly tested the waters. “I led a lot of protests against the administration,” he says. “What that allowed me to do was to gain favor with every gang.” As a result, they protected him and made sure he was well taken care of.
What also roused Cesal, who was in his early 40s at the time of his arrest, was the feeling that he’d been wrongly convicted. He owned a body shop in the suburbs of Chicago, and his indictment stemmed from him repairing refrigerated trailers linked to trafficked weed. “I had no priors whatsoever,” he says. “They admitted I never received any proceeds from marijuana. I never even used marijuana.” (An appeal of his case decided in 2004 suggests that “one of the drivers was arrested and identified Cesal as the person to whom he was making the delivery.”)
Knowing all this, Cesal didn’t think he’d stay in prison for long. “The day I got the sentence, I have to say I was more elated than sad,” he tells me. “I just figured that no court of appeals would allow a life without parole sentence to stand for a marijuana offense.” It was a nonviolent one, at that. “Of course, that didn’t happen,” Cesal continues.
Despite Cesal’s popularity in prison — he spent years as the softball commissioner, which he says was “hysterical” — his time there was still undeniably rough. “I’ve seen many, many people killed,” he says. It got to the point where Cesal eventually gave up any hope of being released. He appeared in a 2013 ACLU report called A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses, which introduced him to many activist groups, and he was frequently discussed during Obama’s 2014 Clemency Project.
Yet, nothing happened — until 2021. On January 19th, President Donald Trump was meant to release news related to clemency for marijuana prisoners, so Cesal was glued to the TV. But the day went by without a word. “So,” he says, “I went to bed at 11 o’clock that night, and I’d basically given up.”
An hour later, he was woken up by a phone call. “The call came through from Ivanka Trump at 12:05 on the morning of the 20th, and her exact words were, ‘The President has commuted your sentence,’” Cesal tells me. “I didn’t believe it.”
Trump’s clemency push also led to Long being released that same morning. This was especially welcome news because he’d just lost 20 pounds after contracting COVID, which the prison was struggling to keep under control. He grabbed his MP3 player, a radio and a handful of legal documents before leaving his cell for the very last time.
He was then faced with the tremendous challenge of figuring out where to go next. “When they asked for an address for me to get released to, I was like, ‘Shit, I’ve been in jail for 25 years — I have nowhere to go,’” he says. He ended up flying to Seattle, where he now lives with his younger brother. He was especially shocked to see all the people on their phones in the airport.
Cesal also experienced culture shock when he was let out, and his daughter handed him an iPhone. “I had no idea that flat thing, an iPhone, was a telephone,” he says. “That’s not what telephones looked like in 2001.” (He was arrested in 2002.) “I’m like three years old all over again,” Cesal continues. “The whole world is foreign to me. It took me 20 minutes to figure out how to use a parking meter.”
Of course, technology wasn’t the only thing that changed while DeLisi, Long and Cesal were in prison. DeLisi lost his wife and son to Oxycodone while he was incarcerated. He was released in 2020 after serving 32 years of his 98-year sentence, in large part because of the Last Prisoner Project, a nonprofit committed to “freeing every last prisoner of the unjust War on Drugs.”
Under pressure by them, their attorneys and a raging news media, the Florida Department of Corrections “found” unredeemed “good time” to release DeLisi early. “I was in like 157 newspapers all over the world,” he tells me. “I was in shock.”
But unfortunately, the hardship didn’t end for DeLisi, Long or Cesal once they were released. DeLisi, now 72, is having a hard time staying financially afloat. “The government wouldn’t give me Social Security,” he says, as he couldn’t contribute much to it while he was in prison. Not only does DeLisi have a one-bedroom apartment and 2004 Volvo to pay for, but he also has medical bills, and he says Obamacare doesn’t cover enough. “When I came out, I had malnutrition,” he says. “They gave me diabetes [in] there because of the diet.”
Long has had an equally rough time since he left prison. All he has from his life before he was locked away are three bass guitars, and while he wishes he could work in the legal weed industry, he’s ineligible because of parole. For now, he spends most of his time on the computer — a machine he’s still learning to use — working on a petition to have his charges removed so he can take his life back. “I just want to clear my name so I can go grow some weed,” he says. “I know I can increase the yields of those modern farms.”
Long has also been working with a hiring agency — he can get off probation early if he holds a job — but he’s not satisfied with the minimum-wage work they’ve been offering him. “Minimum wage isn’t enough to pay for a studio apartment and my basic needs in the Seattle area,” he says. “The government won’t hire felons, but they expect me to find work.”
“If nothing works out here, I’ll just go to Laos and see what I can do over there,” Long continues.
Unsurprisingly, Cesal has also had troubles since his release. “My business had over a million dollars in owner’s equity,” he says. “I lost every penny of that.”
When you hear stories like these, where prisoners are taken from their lives for decades, then thrown onto the streets with nothing, it’s easy to understand why 76.6 percent of U.S. prisoners are rearrested within five years. And in the cases of DeLisi, Long and Cesal, it can’t be understated that their almost 100 combined years of imprisonment were all the result of a substance that, in California (and 17 other states), can legally be delivered to your door for recreational use. The number of states shoots up to 36, including California, for medical use.
If anything, DeLisi believes that people like him paved the way for companies like MedMen, who are now legally slanging weed. He also believes that Big Cannabis owes people like him — and especially the estimated 40,000 cannabis prisoners still locked up today. “Help these people,” he begs. “You guys are making all these millions of dollars, and I don’t even have tires on my car.”