Richard DeLisi is free at last, but his mission is far from over. He’s known as the nation’s longest-serving nonviolent cannabis prisoner, having survived 32 years incarcerated (of a 90-year sentence). Advocating for his release took the concentrated efforts of numerous people, the restorative justice nonprofit Last Prisoner Project (LPP), and a widespread Free DeLisi campaign operated over several years that involved both civilian and high-profile contributors, including actor and cannabis entrepreneur Jim Belushi. Attorneys Chiara Juster, Elizabeth Buchannan, and Michael Minardi also worked pro bono on Richard’s case in conjunction with LPP and Free DeLisi, filing his clemency application and taking his case to local officials and key stakeholders in Florida where he was held.
Though DeLisi was eventually released in December 2020, he hasn’t spent a moment resting. Hyper-focused on ensuring freedom for all cannabis prisoners, he has jumped wholeheartedly into activism and paying it forward. With his family, Richard continues to operate Free DeLisi to raise awareness of incarcerated citizens in need, and gives back to the community through the launch of his brand DeLisioso. His is the story of a true OG.
Who Is Richard DeLisi?
“He’s been sitting so long, waiting so long, it gave him the will to want to do things and just keep going,” comments DeLisi’s son Rick, who co-founded the DeLisioso brand. “It’s like the Energizer Bunny now.”
Anyone who meets Richard DeLisi will describe him as the most caring, generous man they’ve ever encountered. At the time of this writing, Honeysuckle has spent months following DeLisi and his team across the country, where the icon involves himself in every possible initiative to help release incarcerated citizens and to create greater access to cannabis for those in need. From New York’s underground lounges, to California genetics enclaves, to Florida retail centers, he receives a hero’s welcome. Artist-producer-cannabis mogul Shiest Bubz, co-founder of The Smoker’s Club, praises DeLisi for his “swagger.” Renowned cultivator Champelli, who first connected Richard with Last Prisoner Project, regards him as a close friend, but also a symbol of hope for the future of cannabis policy reform. New York operators pay him homage as an innovator of the legacy market. And families of prisoners whose lives DeLisi has improved, through his advocacy and his ability to remind the public of what’s at stake, are deeply thankful that he keeps their loved ones’ plight in the spotlight.
“If there’s 40,000 people in prison,” DeLisi asserts, “it’s half a million or even a million people on the street who are connected to that 40,000. The fight is not over yet. It’s not over until the people who are in prison can be out on the street like me. And can go have dinner with their families. They’re in there and they shouldn’t be.”
“He’s a legend,” Matt Siegel, co-founder of The Astor Club, says of the activist. “He paved the way and we owe him a lot for what he had to do.”
How Did Richard DeLisi Get A 90-Year Prison Sentence For Cannabis?
Many view DeLisi as a visceral reminder of the utter devastation of the War on Drugs. There are currently over 40,000 people serving time in prison for cannabis-related charges. Many are victims of harsh criminal justice penalties, such as the two-strikes law that brought DeLisi down. Initially busted in 1980 for flying from Colombia into the U.S. with 7,500 pounds of cannabis aboard, he served a five-year sentence and was released. But in 1989, he got set up in a police reverse sting operation, receiving a sentence that was virtually for life.
“I was trying to collect some money that someone owed me,” DeLisi recalls. “And they set me up, friends of mine. I thought the guy was a real close friend. His name was Jim White. He and his wife Shelley, they set me up.”
Not much has been publicized on what’s happened to the Whites since, but Richard retains an enormous amount of trauma from the betrayal and his subsequent incarceration. Only his advocacy and treating himself with cannabis – he has to take eight drops of cannabinoid oil just to get to sleep – seem to be a salve to that pain. “It's hard for me to think about the guy that was in three cells from me, who got popped for growing it in the house like 25 miles from where I got arrested,” he notes. “And he's still got 40 years… ‘Cause all that’s [gone] on in my head throughout the years, all the disappointments on the motions – when you know you’re going to win a motion and you’re going home, and then they deny it for no reason. That happened to me 20 times.”
Richard DeLisi's Early Cannabis Experiences And The Grateful Dead
Now 73 years old, DeLisi can reflect on the wide scope of his influence in the cannabis space with greater clarity than ever before. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he came from a working-class family whose members had a history of living on their own terms. His grandfather was a bootlegger during Prohibition, teaching Richard’s father to become what he describes as “corrupt.” But the younger DeLisi wouldn’t be interested in alcohol. Instead, a special plant came calling to him.
At age 13, the rebellious thinker smoked cannabis for the first time, and he asserts that he’s sworn by it ever since. The experience, listening to music in the back of his brother’s 1955 Chevy hot-rod, made him feel like everything was going 60 miles an hour. These glorious vibes eventually led DeLisi into a career that was more heavily music-connected; just a few years later, he developed a close friendship with Mickey Hart, the drummer known as an integral part of the pioneering rock band The Grateful Dead. Meeting first through their mutual friend Huff in New York, both DeLisi and Hart enjoyed using cannabis, LSD, and various drugs. When DeLisi was tasked with driving Huff’s car from the East Coast to California, the young man found a new world opened up to him. Touring around with the Dead for a few years, DeLisi would supply the band with cannabis. He would also end up trying all kinds of substances with the artists, and had wild times bringing as many guests as he liked backstage.
Cannabis Smuggling And Incarceration
Soon, Richard would begin a more complex operation smuggling cannabis into the U.S. from Colombia. Convincing his brother to work with him, he bought a coffee farm in Colombia that included some land where he could grow cannabis plants. After investing in some aircraft, the entrepreneur started running a stunning amount into the country.
“15,000 pounds into New York,” DeLisi remembers. “From Colombia into Florida. Right from South America, I’d fly it on my airplane and then I would take it from Fort Lauderdale, Pompano, wherever, and I would then drive it – we’d put it in a tractor trailer – to send it to New York. If I came here on a Friday, by Sunday they’d be asking me for another truckload.” He adds that he did it all because he sincerely believed, then and now, in the plant’s power to make a positive impact. “I could have become a billionaire and killed [people over drugs], but I became a millionaire and I never hurt anybody. I made so many people happy, and got so many out of pain. Me and my brother did that.”
When the reverse sting operation landed DeLisi in court, the judge saw him as embodying the scary stereotype of a violent drug dealer, despite Richard having no history of violence whatsoever. A small clip of DeLisi bragging about his financial success with cannabis featured on the TV program American Vice further swayed the judge toward the extreme sentencing. During his 32 years behind bars, the advocate would suffer enormous tragedies. Both of his parents passed away, and his relationships with his three children, all of whom were under the age of ten when he was incarcerated, proved difficult to maintain. In 2010, DeLisi’s wife and youngest son Steven died unexpectedly. Then in 2018, his daughter Ashley was involved in a car crash that paralyzed half of her body; today she is wheelchair-bound.
Still, hope and strength somehow endured. While in prison, DeLisi resolved to keep fighting for his freedom. Due to undiagnosed dyslexia, he’d never learned to read and write properly, but finally found the education during his incarceration. He took 30 self-betterment classes, ultimately applying these newfound skills to develop his own alternative teaching method. Through the years, he mentored hundreds of fellow inmates.
The DeLisi Family Launches DeLisioso Cannabis Brand And Trulieve Partnership
Today, both Delisi Senior and Junior work to reform the justice system so that nonviolent offenders can be released expeditiously. Forever grateful to Last Prisoner Project, the father and son are now able to aid their cause directly. (Learn more at freedelisi.com.) Rick owns a cannabis business based in Amsterdam that produces edibles and concentrates, focusing particularly on products for cancer patients and those struggling with epilepsy. Together with DeLisi’s nephew Ken Darby, they decided to launch a new company in the United States.
DeLisioso was officially announced in early 2022, and this spring initiated a partnership with Trulieve, the country’s largest cannabis entity. With deep support from Trulieve’s co-founder and CEO Kim Rivers, the DeLisi family is collaborating closely with the juggernaut company to cultivate unique strains and product lines for the Florida market. Their first strain, Flamingo Kush, debuted in Trulieve retail locations on April 15th. Apparel and accessories are also available for purchase. Proceeds from the sales of all DeLisioso products go to benefit Last Prisoner Project, as well as several other cannabis education and justice nonprofits.
Richard DeLisi: A Father, Freedom Activist, And Cannabis Industry Inspiration
For Rick DeLisi, having his father home at last is empowering him to unlock more of his own identity. He shares how taking an ancient Tibetan personality test revealed the startling similarities between Richard and himself. “I always kind of resented him before the test,” Rick admits. “Because my mother would do that thing – ‘You’re like your father’ – when she thought I was getting up to no good… When I did that test, [the results told me] ‘Your father is your soul twin.’ And when I started understanding that he had a special star power in his life, the star power where you walk in a room and people wonder who you are, I understood that I had that too.”
Rick continues, “When you don’t have your father, it’s really hard to believe in yourself as a man. But it’s just amazing what he had to go through, and [when] I understood that, I understood my mother’s compassion for him. Because underneath all that ‘you’re like your father’ shit, there was an amazing compassion and empathy for what he had gone through. My mother served her time too; someone snitched on her also.”
Richard Senior is just glad to have the opportunity to be part of his son’s life again, for the first time in decades. He intends to do as much advocacy as he can, and then to spend any free time with family, getting to know his grandchildren. But he would like to “talk some sense into their asses in Washington” about cannabis legalization – a goal he’s made some steps toward, accompanying Last Prisoner Project and other groups in a protest outside the White House this October.
And wherever he goes, DeLisi remains an inspiration. AngelDustCEO, a landmark figure of the legacy cannabis scene (associated with the notable Certz, I Bud You, and Soil2Oil1130Gang brands), speaks on his admiration for the elder man and how the unjust nature of the current laws mistreats OGs. “He’s been at state and federal charges; I’ve had cultivation charges in New Jersey for multimillion-dollar grow houses. It all comes with the territory. [But] to leave us out of the market, not have a place for us in the market, is unacceptable when the only reason you want a market is ‘cause we were doing these things that you were throwing us in jail for. Whether it's down to the little people, people’s families, it’s not just the person that you’re targeting. It’s that person’s family and whoever they take care of, and their wellbeing. There’s ramifications that come with every action that’s taken. And it doesn't matter on what level – someone’s affected by it.”
Over 32 years, those “someones” were Richard DeLisi and his family. Now they are the ones wielding their star power for good, lighting the way to freedom for those whose only crime was lighting joints. May their story be a beacon of hope, and their heroism deliver a promise: Cannabis justice is coming. There’s no going back.
A version of this article was originally published in Honeysuckle's milestone 15th print edition. Click here to get your copy now!
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Featured image: Richard DeLisi Senior (right) and Richard DeLisi Junior (left), celebrating the launch of their DeLisioso brand (C) Sam C. Long / Honeysuckle Media, Inc. @tissuekulture