While attitudes and laws involving marijuana gradually soften in the United States, some people still languish behind bars, enduring long prison sentences that would be considered anachronistic in today’s climate. There’s no better example than Antonio Bascaró, who according to the Clemency Report is the longest serving marijuana prisoner in the history of the nation.
Bascaró, 80, has been locked in prison for 35 years now for smuggling marijuana from Colombia to Florida using fishing boats in the 1970s. He serves his time even as harsh marijuana laws tumble like dominoes across the nation. Cannabis is either legal, decriminalized or legal for medical purposes in 27 states plus Washington, D.C. as of April 2015.
The former Cuban naval pilot was convicted in 1980 on charges including racketeering, conspiracy to import marijuana and possession with intent to distribute. It was his first offense and none of the charges involved violence or hard drugs. His appeal was denied by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1984 and he’s been serving ever since.
“The elderly man spends his days in a wheelchair, mostly by himself, reading newspapers and listening to the news in his cell at a federal prison south of Miami,” the Clemency Report states. “He is marijuana’s forgotten man.”
If he isn’t released beforehand, Bascaró will get out of prison in June 2019, when he’s 84 years old. The original sentence has already been reduced by 20 years for good behavior.
His daughter Aicha, who was 12 when her father began serving his sentence, recently put up a petition on Change.org asking the Obama Administration to grant Bascaró an early release. “My father has paid with his life for that one marijuana offense. I think that the time he has served is more than enough punishment,” she wrote. “He deserves to live the rest of his life with his family. He is not a threat to society and he has family and friends ready to help him re-enter it.”
The Clemency Report lays out some of the contradictions and absurdities in Bascaró’s prison stay:
- a non-parolable parolable sentence.
- a sentence exempt from the Obama administration’s efforts to shorten drug sentences…because he’s been in prison too long.
- a sentence that doesn’t qualify for the U.S. Sentencing Commission recent reforms (shortening the drug sentences of 40,000 federal prisoners) because… his sentence is too old to be shortened.
- an ineligibility to receive “compassionate release” for elderly prisoners… because the regulations were written in a way that didn’t take into account the existence of a man so old and locked up for so long.
There are signs that the federal government is gradually coming around on mitigating the damage caused by excessive drug sentences. Last year the administration broadened the criteria for inmates eligible to request clemency. And on March 31, President Obama commuted the sentences of 22 people serving time for drug offenses, mostly for convictions involving cocaine and methamphetamine. Only one of the commuted sentences, to Francis Darrell Hayden, involved marijuana.
“Had they been sentenced under current laws and policies, many of these individuals would have already served their time and paid their debt to society,” White House counsel Neil Eggleston said in a statement. “Because many were convicted under an outdated sentencing regime, they served years — in some cases more than a decade — longer than individuals convicted today of the same crime.”
The move was purportedly part of a pivot by the administration to take a more aggressive stance on granting reprieves to people serving harsh sentences for non-violent offenses. But Antonio Bascaró still waits for his mercy.
As it stands, he might die before he ever again sees his family outside of prison, collateral damage in an outdated, misguided and counterproductive war on drugs.