The U.S. justice system is irrefutably flawed and has a dark side, but one company rose from the ashes of a cruel ruling. Richard DeLisi is one of America’s longest-serving and most harshly-punished prisoners for a nonviolent cannabis-related crime, serving 32 years of a 90-year sentence coupled with an eight-year sentence for a total of 98 years. He was freed from prison in December 2020 thanks to the valiant acts of volunteers, pro-bono attorneys, and advocates.
Finally free after over three decades of confinement, DeLisi launched his own brand, DeLisioso, providing flower, pre-rolls, and live rosin, while giving back a portion of proceeds to organizations including the restorative justice nonprofit Last Prisoner Project (LPP).
Transforming a Nightmare into an Opportunity
Like High Times founder Tom Forçade, DeLisi helped to orchestrate large-scale international pot shipments via plane in the ’70s. He was arrested in 1980 for allegedly flying 7,500 pounds of cannabis from Colombia into the U.S. and served a five-year sentence. But in 1989, police agents set up him and his brother and busted them in a sting operation. It turned out to be a lot more serious than they initially thought.
Imagine stepping into the courtroom, expecting 12-17 years as a worst-case scenario, then getting slapped with 98 years. DeLisi and his brother Ted DeLisi both received 90 years: 30 for trafficking cannabis, 30 for conspiracy to traffic, and 30 more for racketeering, plus an additional eight years.
“I thought they were actually joking,” DeLisi says with a thick Brooklyn accent. “I thought it was some kind of a joke. I was like, ‘How could this be? This is a nonviolent crime. You’re letting all of these violent people out, and you’re trying to keep me for the rest of my life forever?’”
The outcome impacted his family immeasurably—it almost ripped them apart.
“They advised 12 to 17 years,” says DeLisi’s son Rick DeLisi, who co-founded DeLisioso. “In the beginning, we thought five to seven, but then all of a sudden, it was 12 to 17. And kind of with a ‘maximum of 17 energy,’ they went behind their words. And when they came back out and said 90 years plus eight years. I just remember my mom almost passed out.”
Free DeLisi is a nonprofit originally formed as a campaign to bring awareness to DeLisi’s unjust sentence, and now they advocate for the release of prisoners with similar nonviolent, cannabis-related sentences.
Along with the LPP and Free DeLisi, attorneys Chiara Juster, Elizabeth Buchannan, and Michael Minardi also worked pro bono on DeLisi’s case, filing for clemency applications and taking his case nationwide. Ted’s appeal was granted and he was released in 2014, but it would take another six years for DeLisi to be released.
DeLisi’s running title as America’s longest-serving prisoner for a nonviolent cannabis-related crime could soon be eclipsed by prisoners still locked up on similar charges. He continues to operate Free DeLisi to raise awareness of incarcerated citizens in need.
“It’s important to me because I’m an activist, too,” DeLisi says. “That’s what my whole thing is, to try to help the people that are still in there to get out. That’s our main focus. But we have the cannabis business just to take care of our bills. You know what I mean?”
Rick echoed his father’s statements.
“I think what’s really important about why we would be able to have a former cannabis prisoner be part of a brand is because I think that when there’s a whole industry like spearheading, and moving forward, across the nation, and each state is slowly converting to legal,” Rick says. “My father was one of the most harshly sentenced cannabis prisoners in United States history. So it would only make sense to have some sort of restitution for all the sacrifice he made for the industry that we now can appreciate.”
In 2021, Rick’s cousin Kenny Darby and his father attended a party with Trulieve CEO Kim Rivers and rapper Redman in attendance. Darby had the opportunity of meeting Rivers, and she knew about DeLisi’s dire situation and triumphant return to freedom.
“She was extremely motivated to help us out,” Rick says. “And she did things in such a fast way to try and facilitate a situation for us, which was great. I got to go there, kind of pheno hunt with their cultivation team, and they let me go through all the strains and with my father and choose a certain female. We ended up naming the Flamingo Kush.”
Flamingo Kush is a very kush-dominant pheno of a Kush Mints variety. DeLisi, Rick, and Darby sorted through Trulieve phenos based on the terpene content and the flower’s appeal in terms of look.
DeLisioso’s initial strain appears to be a winner judging by how it was received at events like Hall of Flowers.
“We just celebrated our one-year anniversary as a company,” says Darby, who now serves as DeLisioso chief revenue officer. “We sold out over the last year. Our first legal product was sold on 4/20 of last year. That was a pre-roll. We sold 10,000 pre-rolls in three hours.”
Other Nonviolent Cannabis Prisoners
Darby says the cannabis community should pay attention to cannabis prisoner Kevin O’Brien Allen, who was caught selling $20 worth of cannabis to an undercover officer in 2012 and 2013. He was initially sentenced to 10 years in 2014, but it was later extended under the state’s “habitual offender status” to life in prison without the chance of parole. Allen is locked up at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana. The LPP has launched a campaign #FreeKevinAllen to bring awareness to the situation.
“He’s serving in Angola, Louisiana, which is really, you know, in a state prison that used to be a slave plantation,” Darby says. “And obviously, it’s illegal, but at the same time, life? Are you kidding?”
Countless other drug war prisoners still need help.
“Uncle [Richard] is really adamant,” Darby says. “He’s been to Washington, D.C., six times, you know, protesting and holding up pictures of prisoners and getting people to write letters and just telling people like, people don’t realize that there are so many people incarcerated for weed.”
Prisoners with unjust sentences like Allen need assistance, just as the cannabis community sprung into action to help release DeLisi. To help do this, DeLisioso is putting a portion of proceeds to action.
“Every year, 1% of our revenue—not the revenue of the complete sales, but the revenue from the DeLisioso—goes to a cause or foundation of our choice,” Rick says. “So far this year, that’s gone towards Last Prisoner Project.”
DeLisioso is currently available in Florida’s medical cannabis market, but the team plans on expanding to California, Maryland, New Jersey, and finally, New York, DeLisi’s home state.
This article was originally published in the August 2023 issue of High Times Magazine.