Can You Get Life in Prison for Drugs?

By Prison Insight Staff

Updated: November 24, 2021

The blog topics that I write about on Prison Insight are based on the most commonly-asked questions we get about prison and the criminal justice system. Today’s topic has been on my list for a while, but I’ve avoided it because it hits so close to home. And, I’ve got to be honest, it makes me quite emotional.

In 2013, I was sentenced to 15 years in prison (actually, it was two 15-year sentences, running concurrently) for the first time nonviolent offense of marijuana possession and cultivation. 

I could write an entire book about my case, but the basics are that I was arrested when 12 marijuana plants were found in my roommate’s closet. Because my name was on the lease, I got charged with cultivation. Because there was more than an ounce of marijuana in the house, I automatically received a charge of possession with intent to distribute. 

That charge had nothing to do with me attempting to sell pot. Instead, the law in my state was that possessing any amount over an ounce automatically came with an intent to distribute charge.

In my opinion, the facts about my case were irrelevant to the prosecutor, who instantly became fixated on my case because it was an election year. He told the local press that I was a big-time drug dealer who had been taken down. He pushed for maximum sentences on every charge he could come up with and refused to consider anything else other than the narrative he had created.

After two years of fighting this man, he broke me. The prosecutor had me arrested for a bad check charge in order to have my bond revoked on my pot case and put me in jail without bail to force me to plead guilty. It was a huge mess, and I ended up pleading guilty just to get out of jail and get my probation in my pot case. I just wanted it to be over.

Instead of getting probation (which every other first time nonviolent drug offender gets in my state), the prosecutor in my case asked the judge for a maximum sentence on both counts. And, that’s exactly what happened. We later found out that the judge and prosecutor were in cahoots, meaning the judge would always take the sentencing recommendations of the prosecutor with no questions asked.

I was sentenced to 15 years, and served four before I was released on parole. Then, the state Supreme Court overturned my case because of a ton of bad conduct among the lawyers (both prosecution and defense).

So, I gave you all of that backstory about me in order to explain that today’s blog question is one that I know quite a bit about: Can you get life in prison for drugs?

In this blog post I will cover the following topics:

  • Federal drug cases can come with life sentences
  • The story of Craig Cesal
  • State laws differ, but it’s possible in most states to get life in prison for drugs
  • God bless Jeff Mizanskey

Federal drug cases can come with life sentences

At the federal level, you can get life in prison for drug trafficking even if you are a first-time offender. 

First Offense (for trafficking narcotics): The sentencing guideline is less than 10 yrs. and not more than life. If death or serious bodily injury occurs, no less than 20 yrs. or more than life. Fine of not more than $10 million, if it’s an individual.

Second Offense: No less than 20 yrs, and not more than life. If death or serious bodily injury, life imprisonment. Fine of not more than $20 million if an individual, $75 million if not an individual. 

2 or More Prior Offenses: Life imprisonment. Fine of not more than $20 million if an individual, $75 million if not an individual.

The Story of Craig Cesal

Craig Cesal was sentenced to life in prison for a first-time drug offense, and he is currently in a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. Craig was arrested not long after September 11, 2001, and his case was connected to possible terrorism. 

Here is an excerpt from Craig’s story in his own words:

“I was never alleged to have bought, sold, or even used marijuana,” Craig writes. “Rather, my business repaired semi-trucks for a company that trafficked marijuana. I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong as I didn’t do anything with marijuana. I was wrong, according to the federal court in Gainesville, Georgia. My business, nestled near Chicago, was auctioned by lawyers in Georgia to pay for their services to secure the life sentence after my home and savings were spent.

The sentencing judge determined I am a marijuana reprobate. I am thus irredeemable and unworthy of anything other than final damnation in prison. Murderers are released after 13.4 years on average, according to the Department of Justice, and a terrorist can go home after 17 years. But I am a prisoner of the War on Drugs. There’s no hope for me under existing federal law.”

State laws differ, but it’s possible in most states to get life in prison for drugs

The drug laws vary greatly among the 50 states. However, getting a life sentence for a first-time drug offense is probably not going to happen no matter which state you live in. Yes, you can get a life sentence for drugs, but that’s usually reserved for repeat offenders. And, it’s becoming more and more rare. 

In 2019, nearly 70 people were in prison in the United States and serving a life sentence for a marijuana charge. Some were pardoned by President Donald Trump before he left office. But, there are still people doing life behind bars for drugs. 

God Bless Jeff Mizanskey

One year before my release, Jeff Mizanskey was released from a Missouri prison thanks to the governor at the time, Jay Nixon. He commuted Jeff’s life sentence for marijuana after he had served 21 years. 

After Missouri legalized medical cannabis, Jeff was the first person to buy it legally in Pettis County.

“It was strange — I mean, after spending almost 23 years in prison for cannabis, and now all of a sudden I can go into the store right here?” Jeff said. “It wasn’t a mile from where I was originally arrested in 1993. I was almost afraid to go in the dispensary, you know, because everything in the back of my mind, the feelings come up when you walk into a place like that. I was thinking, “Oh my god, what am I doing here? Should I be here?”

Writing this article reminded me that I need to give Jeff a call and see how he’s doing. He was serving the longest sentence for pot in the state before he was released. I was serving the longest sentence for a female in the state for pot before my case was overturned. God Bless Jeff Mizansky. I’m so glad he’s out.

Is it time to end the drug war? Let us know in the comments below.


I Was Sentenced to Life Without Parole for a Non-Violent First Drug Offense

Summary of Federal and State Drug Laws

Jeff Mizanskey to be freed Tuesday after 21 years on pot charges

Jeff Mizanskey on Life After a Life Sentence for Marijuana

Top Ten Non-Violent Marijuana Life Sentence Cases
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