Cannabis legalization programs have had the remarkable benefit of motivating cities and counties to begin expunging the records of people who were arrested for possessing or consuming cannabis back in the day, sometimes before there were even medical cannabis programs. You might think that this overdue restorative justice would also include freeing prisoners with non-violent cannabis convictions. That's not always the case.
This month saw the release of a man from Miami Federal Prison convicted of a non-violent cannabis offense. It's notable because the time this man served is a record, albeit a record no one would ever want to hold.
Antonio Bascaro spent the past 39 years as a prisoner for a non-violent cannabis offense, believed to be the longest sentence for a cannabis conviction in America. Bascaro's now 84, and the BBC did a fantastic job profiling a man who lived several lives before having the next four decades of it ripped away, all over cannabis.
Bascaro served as a naval pilot in Cuba, was captured by guerrillas, and had Raul Castro attempt to convince him to leave the Navy and come join the rebels. He refused and was jailed—twice—before moving to Uruguay, where he was trained by the CIA to be a part of the Bay of Pigs invasion.
In 1977, he joined a growing criminal organization that imported more than 600,000 pounds of Colombian cannabis into the US. It was going great until it wasn't, and he was arrested in Guatemala in 1980 and extradited by the DEA to Florida. Per the BBC: "After a trial in Georgia, he was found guilty of "conspiracy to import and distribute marijuana." Bascaro rejected offers from US authorities to reduce his sentence in exchange for his co-operation on other investigations, leading to a sentence of 60 years in prison. "I refused to co-operate because my moral values and ethics, as well as my military training, kept me from using someone else or from testifying against another person to solve my problems. No one forced me to join the conspiracy. That is why I did not co-operate or try to use anyone else to save my neck." Bascaro wasn't alone in being convicted, but as the BBC puts it, "As every member of the criminal organization was eventually tried, sentenced, and released, Bascaro became the last one of the group without his freedom."
Bascaro's release doesn't ensure a happy ending. His family all live in Miami, which is where he would like to spend his remaining years. But as an immigrant with a criminal record, deportation is a very real possibility. After nearly 40 years of incarceration, any place he would be deported to would be a strange and foreign land. But at least it won't be prison.