Randy Lanier is a former Indy 500 Rookie of the Year driver who served 26 years for smuggling marijuana into Florida.

“Are you going to send me a copy of the story when it comes out?” Randy Lanier asked me after our interview. “Rolling Stone magazine did a story on me that came out just a few days ago, and they’re sending me a copy.”

Lanier is used to being interviewed. He’s had pieces on him published in Sports Illustrated, Vice, the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, and he wrote his own mini tell-all for Esquire Magazine.

He’s made headlines for his backstory: he was a famous, up-and-coming race car driver. He’d won the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) GT Championship in 1984 on an independent, self-funded team. Then, in 1986, he was named the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year. All while running a multi-million dollar smuggling operation.

But while his story is special, his marijuana smuggling convictions and time served are far from unique. In 2012, roughly 20,000 people were serving time in federal prison for marijuana related offenses alone.

“Marijuana was part of the lifestyle”

Lanier got into smuggling marijuana early in his life, at around 19 years old, he says. By dealing drugs locally, he'd earned enough money to buy a small boat that he would load up with Bahamian marijuana and transport back to Florida.

“Growing up here in South Florida and the culture in the ‘60s, marijuana was part of the lifestyle," he says. "I had plenty of opportunities to smuggle other drugs, but chose to smuggle weed. Why did I do it? Because it was profitable.”

Very profitable, in fact. So he started smuggling more and more, moving from the Bahamas to Colombia, using the money to buy a bigger boat and fund his independent racing team. He made millions upon millions.

Then just as his racing career was picking up, it all came crashing back down. It’s hard to nail down exactly what led the police to him, but Lanier says it was a domino effect: a small town dealer in Illinois was picked up, and he gave up his suppliers. One of those suppliers gave up his suppliers, who gave up his suppliers, on and on until the line ended at Lanier.

He was arrested, pled not guilty, and went to trial. Three months, 65 witnesses and 10,500 pages of court transcripts later, the jury found him guilty on three counts that came with hefty sentences: engaging in a continual criminal enterprise (life without parole), conspiracy to sell over 1,000 lbs of marijuana (40 years), and impeding the IRS (5 years).

They never found any of the marijuana that he smuggled in, but that didn’t matter. Lanier was headed to prison for the rest of his life.

“I was devastated, to say the least,” he told me. “I cried like a baby! I knew then that my life would be completely different for a very long time, completely different than what it was.”

A prison transformation

Lanier spent a total of 26 years in prison, from 1988 when he was sentenced, to 2014 when he was finally released. But that’s only a fraction of the time he was supposed to serve. He thought he was going to die in jail.

In the beginning, Lanier spent a lot of time feeling sorry for himself, but by his third decade behind bars, he began his prison transformation.

He took up yoga, then started teaching classes. He couldn’t run anymore, so he took up oil painting as well. He taught himself tai chi. He even worked on starting a suicide companions program, which helped inmates who were suicidal by giving them someone to talk to.

“Prison is really what you make it,” he said.  My last decade, I started to do a little service, so I disconnected, and made it not that bad.”

And just as it’s hard to pinpoint the exact chain of events that led to Lanier being incarcerated, it’s also a little tricky to figure out exactly how he landed himself back on the outside.

Lanier says that it was a series of fortunate events: his friend had also filed a lawsuit against the government for illegal handling of evidence and contraband, and when that went through and helped his friend get out, it set the precedent for his release.

At the same time, he had filed a motion for release at a time when the Obama administration was working to commute the sentences of non-violent drug offenders. Everything came together, so when he filed his motion, it was granted. He was free.

“It wasn’t fair”

Lanier continued with his new zen outlook on life once he was released. He spent 6 months in a halfway house, then went home to his family. One year after his release, his son gave birth to twin boys, and he slowly started to ease back into racing.

Now, at 63, he works as a behaviour health technician, helping people who are dealing with substance abuse issues. He also teaches high performance driving at a Corvette school on the weekends.

“My days could be no better,” he says. “First thing in the morning, I walk to the beach, with anywhere from 8 to 25 clients. We watch the sun rise. It’s just a beautiful way to start the day.”

But that newfound attitude doesn’t extend as far as acceptance of the time he lost behind bars. He still believes that there was no way that his punishment fit his crime.

“It wasn’t fair,” he said. “Life sometimes isn’t fair, so I’m not going to sit here and cry about what happened to me. That’s not what I’m about.”

It was especially hard for him to continue to sit in prison as states pushed boundaries and made history by legalizing marijuana, both for medicinal and recreational use. But now that he’s out, he sees the progress being made as exciting.

He perked up when he heard I was Canadian, eager to talk about the country’s push to legalize marijuana by July. After all, it’s not perfect, but it’s a harsh contrast to what’s still going on in the USA.

“I hope that the United States sees that they’re only harming their citizens by punishing people with such draconian prison sentences for a marijuana plant,” he said. “To me, it’s ridiculous. Totally cruel and unusual punishment. Should be abolished.”