California man spent 14 years behind bars over medical marijuana

Luke Scarmazzo is back home in California after serving more than 14 years in federal prison for helping to run a nonprofit medical marijuana collective – an everyday business under state law but forbidden, then and now, by the U.S. government, which classifies the weed as one of the most dangerous drugs on the planet.

Even so, a federal judge ordered Scarmazzo’s release last week, citing his fine behavior in prison, including volunteer work and legal aid to other inmates, and the “changes in the legal climate” in the last two decades. The federal government now rarely charges marijuana users and sellers whose actions would be legal under state laws.

“It feels like a dream,” Scarmuzzo, 42, said from his parents’ home in Modesto after being freed from federal prison in Mississippi, his fifth home behind bars during what ended up being about two-thirds of his 2008 sentence of 21 years and 10 months.

In prison he earned a college degree, helped to establish a legal aid clinic for other inmates and a program to keep them crime-free after their release, published articles and poems, and wrote a memoir, “High Price,” that he says is being considered for a televised mini-series.

Luke Scarmazzo wrote a memoir while in prison for operating a medical marijuana collective.

Luke Scarmazzo wrote a memoir while in prison for operating a medical marijuana collective.

Stephen Lam/The Chronicle

And while the terms of his release don’t allow him to work for a pot dispensary for the next five years – a restriction that he could ask the judge to lift within a year – “I’m definitely going to be back in the industry in some capacity … the cause that’s near and dear to me,” Scarmuzzo said.

A tattoo is seen on Luke Scarmazzo, who was released on February 3 after serving 14 years of a 22-year federal sentence for operating a medical cannabis dispensary, in Modesto, California Friday, Feb. 10, 2023. The tattoo, the Latin phrase “Cogito Ergo Sum” that commonly translates as “I think, therefore I am,” was inked while he was incarcerated. A week since his compassionate release, Scarmazzo is slowly adjusting to life as a free man, including his first meal at a Pizza Hut, as well as picking up an iPhone 14 yesterday, 14 years since he got his last phone, the original first generation iPhone.
A tattoo is seen on Luke Scarmazzo, who was released on February 3 after serving 14 years of a 22-year federal sentence for operating a medical cannabis dispensary, in Modesto, California Friday, Feb. 10, 2023. The tattoo, the Latin phrase “Cogito Ergo Sum” that commonly translates as “I think, therefore I am,” was inked while he was incarcerated. A week since his compassionate release, Scarmazzo is slowly adjusting to life as a free man, including his first meal at a Pizza Hut, as well as picking up an iPhone 14 yesterday, 14 years since he got his last phone, the original first generation iPhone.Stephen Lam/The Chronicle

“The government, I think, is behind the times,” he said.

His sentence had included a 20-year term required by federal law for “engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise,” and was due to end in 2027, with time off for good behavior. In the Feb. 4 ruling, U.S. District Judge Dale Drozd of Sacramento noted that legislation first approved by Congress in 2014 prohibits federal prosecutors from filing charges against marijuana businesses that follow the laws of their state. He declined to say whether Scarmazzo’s collective complied with California law, but it had operated openly for about two years without state interference before a federal raid in 2006.

That was preceded, Scarmazzo said, by efforts from city officials in Modesto and other conservative local governments to shut the business down with zoning laws, litigation and a moratorium on new dispensaries. When those failed, he said, city police officers posing as patients obtained marijuana at the cooperative and then testified against him in court. A federal court ruling that upheld his convictions in 2012 quoted one officer who went to the nonprofit five times to purchase marijuana.

Also convicted was the collective’s chief executive officer, Ricardo Montes. He was released in 2017 under a grant of clemency by outgoing President Barack Obama, but Obama denied clemency to Scarmazzo.

“It just wasn’t my time,” Scarmazzo said. “I’m currently a man of faith and I believe in that. I definitely wanted to get out earlier but in God’s time and God’s plan, everything happens for a reason.”

Luke Scarmazzo, left, who was released on Feb. 3 after serving 14 years in prison for operating a medical cannabis dispensary in Modesto, walks family dog Rolli with his father Nick, and dog Elsa, near their home in Modesto.

Luke Scarmazzo, left, who was released on Feb. 3 after serving 14 years in prison for operating a medical cannabis dispensary in Modesto, walks family dog Rolli with his father Nick, and dog Elsa, near their home in Modesto.

Stephen Lam/The Chronicle

Nationwide, 158 medical marijuana defendants were sentenced to federal prison for conduct that was at least arguably legal under the laws of their states, said Dale Gieringer, California coordinator for the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws, or NORML. He said Montes and Scarmazzo had been the last two still in prison before their release.

“I can think of prior presidents who did far more damage to the country than Luke and Ricardo ever did operating their MMJ dispensary,” Gieringer told The Chronicle. 

California voters approved medical use of marijuana in 1996, the first of more than three dozen states to do so. The voters approved personal use of marijuana by adults in 2016, similar to laws now in effect in another 20 states. Local governments can still regulate marijuana dispensaries, but they are legal in Modesto.

Federal law, however, still classifies marijuana in the most dangerous category of drugs, along with heroin, LSD, peyote and MDMA, or ecstasy, substances the government considers to have a high potential for abuse and no “accepted” medical use. President Biden has called for reclassifying marijuana as less dangerous, and granted pardons last October to anyone convicted under federal law of possession of the drug. The House approved Democratic legislation in April to remove all federal criminal penalties for marijuana, but the measure failed to advance in the Senate and has little prospect of success in the current Congress.

At his first federal prison in Lompoc (Santa Barbara County), Scarmazzo met Weldon Angelos, a former rap producer serving a 55-year sentence for a federal marijuana conviction in Utah. With the help of Angelos’ contacts in the music industry, they launched the Weldon Project, which, Angelos said, worked for changes in federal sentencing laws and helped dozens of prisoners obtain pardons for marijuana convictions. Angelos was released in 2016 after 13 years in prison, one of the effects of the new laws, and was pardoned by President Donald Trump in his final weeks in office in 2020.

Scarmazzo’s case is “a very sad but compelling story that sets a precedent for other people,” Angelos said from his home in Salt Lake City.

“There are a lot of dark times in there,” said Scarmazzo. “You deal with a lot of isolation, loss, deprivation … a multiple-decade sentence weighing you down. I made a vow to myself to use the time to better myself, and those around me.”

A photograph shows Luke Scarmazzo and his daughter during a prison visit. 

A photograph shows Luke Scarmazzo and his daughter during a prison visit. 

Stephen Lam/The Chronicle

His daughter, 5 years old when he went to prison, is now 20 and, the judge said in his ruling, would presumably benefit from his presence. His mother is bed-ridden after neck and spine surgery, and his father has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Scarmazzo and his wife divorced while he was in prison — amicably, he said.

In addition, Drozd wrote, “federal prosecutions for marijuana-related offenses have been curbed significantly, particularly in states like California that have legalized those activities with some restrictions.” In those states, he said, the government mostly targets growers in large,m unauthorized sites on federal lands.

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