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Federal Judge Releases Luke Scarmazzo, Who Was Imprisoned 14 Years For Running A Medical Marijuana D

Jackie BryantContributor

I cover cannabis business and culture.


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Luke Scarmazzo, who has served 14 years of a 22-year sentence in federal prison for operating a medical cannabis dispensary in California, is scheduled to be released Friday, Feb. 3 after winning his compassionate release case in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California. The petition was originally filed in 2019. Most recently he has been incarcerated at Yazoo City, MS-based FCI Yazoo City.


During the final days of the Trump Administration, Scarmazzo was told that he would be pardoned and released but was stymied at the last minute without explanation.


“When I saw Biden getting sworn in, I knew that it wasn’t gonna happen,” Scarmazzo told Forbes during a a phone interview from prison in January 2021. “I was just devastated,” he says. “I…I don’t really even have words to say how I felt. I was right at the gate of being released and at the last second, it was snatched away.”


According to advocacy group California NORML, Scarmazzo is the last federal prisoner locked up for a California medical marijuana charge. He and other other non-violent cannabis offenders—exactly how many there are remains in dispute—testify to the excesses of the War on Drugs as companies now grow and harvest weed on an industrial scale on a state-legal basis. He was due to be released in 2027.


Scarmazzo and his business partner, Ricardo Montes, opened California Healthcare Collective medical cannabis dispensary in 2004 in Modesto, CA. Though their business was legal under California’s Proposition 215, which legalized medical cultivation, sales, and consumption in the state, cannabis remained illegal under federal law. In 2006, the DEA raided the dispensary and arrested Scarmazzo and Montes.


Both Scarmazzo and Montes were prosecuted in federal court on identical charges and sentenced in 2008. Along with the manufacture of marijuana and possession with intent to distribute, they were charged with operating a continuing criminal enterprise, which is colloquially known as the “Kingpin Statute.” It is typically applied to criminal organizations, like cartel operations, and carries a mandatory minimum of 20 years imprisonment. He was sentenced to 22.


Scarmazzo also petitioned President Obama for commutation in 2017 but was denied. Since then, advocates for Scarmazzo have been working to secure his release, chief of which are Alice Johnson, a criminal justice reform activist who received both a sentence commutation and pardon from President Trump, and Weldon Angelos, founder of advocacy group Mission Green. He had been incarcerated on cannabis charges in 2004 and was pardoned by President Trump in December 2020. Angelos says he has been working on behalf of Scarmazzo for over ten years–they met in prison and served together for seven years.


All of that is potentially over now as Scarmazzo is expected to walk free by 4 p.m. CT on Friday.


“In Luke's case, it's more about changing policies and social norms around marijuana in the legal landscape, how it's changed so radically,”Angelos said in a phone interview Friday morning. “The government said that's very speculative because it becomes down to a prosecutor’s decision, basically. But the judge today ruled against that and said, ‘No, no one's being charged in California today.’”


“Luke’s story is one of the most tragic of our criminal justice system,” Angelos said. “I said back in 2021 when Trump denied him that pardon that day was the saddest of my advocacy career–this is the proudest.” He adds that he hopes it can serve as a model for other compassionate release petitions concerning cannabis prisoners.

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