A California man who spent nearly 15 years in federal custody for operating a state-legal medical marijuana dispensary was released from prison last week following a years-long campaign by family and restorative justice advocates to secure his freedom. Luke Scarmazzo, who was dubbed California’s last cannabis prisoner by marijuana policy reform advocacy group CalNORML, was freed from federal custody on Feb. 3 in response to a compassionate release petition filed on his behalf in 2019.
In 2006, the Drug Enforcement Administration raided the medical dispensary Scarmazzo and his business partner Ricardo Montes were operating in compliance with Proposition 215, the 1996 ballot measure that legalized the medicinal use of cannabis in California. In May 2008, they were convicted for operating a continuing criminal enterprise. Scarmazzo was sentenced to 21 years and 10 months behind bars, while Montes received a 20-year sentence. On Jan. 5, 2011, a federal appeals court upheld the convictions of Scarmazzo and Montes, denying them a new trial.
“We followed California law to the letter,” Scarmazzo said about their convictions. “We paid our taxes. We went to work every day providing a benefit and service to the community. Yet in the end, we were made out to look like common criminals.”
In May 2017, Montes was granted clemency by President Barack Obama, but for some unknown reason, Scarmazzo was left in prison. He was disappointed once again when President Donald Trump left office in January 2019 without granting Scarmazzo a pardon as many advocates expected him to do.
Clemency Campaign Secures Scarmazzo’s Release
Scarmazzo’s case has received considerable attention and many criminal justice advocates including Weldon Angelos, a former cannabis prisoner who was pardoned by Trump in 2020, had taken up the cause for clemency. The two had served at the same federal prison in Lompoc, California from 2010 until Angelos’ release, where he had helped write the clemency petitions for Scarmazzo and Montes. After Obama commuted Angelos’ sentence, the former prisoner continued the fight to secure Scarmazzo’s release through his nonprofit group The Weldon Project.
“Luke’s story is one of the most tragic stories perpetrated by our criminal justice system. He was following state law but treated as a drug kingpin by the federal system. But I’m finally relieved that he can go home to his family and have a chance at rebuilding his life after serving 14 years in prison,” Angelos said. “We’ve helped a lot of people, but this one is different. Luke is my friend and someone I’ve been fighting for since we were in prison together seven years ago. Now, Luke has the ability to join us in this fight to free those we have both left behind.”
Judge Weighs ‘Unique Confluence’ of Circumstances
In his order releasing Scarmazzo last week, United States District Judge Dale A. Drozd wrote that he had considered a “unique confluence” of circumstances before reaching his decision. The judge cited Scarmazzo’s good behavior while behind bars; his pursuit of educational opportunities; strong support from his family and the community, including job offers; and noted the disparity between the sentences served by Scarmazzo and Montes, among other factors.
“The court is persuaded that the granting of the requested relief is appropriate at this point and is supported by both extraordinary and compelling circumstances and consideration of the sentencing factors set forth” by federal law, the judge wrote.
The campaign to free Scarmazzo was spearheaded by Mission Green, a campaign by Angelos’ nonprofit Weldon Project dedicated to securing the release of all cannabis prisoners. Kyle Kazan, a Weldon Project board member and the CEO of California cannabis company Glass House Group, said that his company has pledged support for Scarmazzo to help ease the transition following his release. He also said the company would continue to advocate for a full pardon for Scarmazzo and called on President Joseph Biden to end the incarceration of all cannabis prisoners nationwide.
“While I think the release is an excellent sign that some judges understand how unjust the dichotomy in the law is, Luke needed a lawyer to make the argument on his behalf,” Kazan wrote in an email to Cannabis Now. “It would be a lot easier and represent the will of the majority of the American people for President Biden to live up to his promise and simply end the War on Cannabis. It would not require him to do any prisoner swaps but to simply sign 2,700 pardons. And Congress is derelict in their collective duty to continue to allow people to be sentenced to federal prison for this plant.”
Only days after his release, Scarmazzo also pledged to fight for those still serving time for cannabis-related convictions.
“After serving nearly 15 years in prison for operating a cannabis dispensary, I was granted my freedom. The feeling is surreal. We’ve worked toward this day for so long,” Scarmazzo wrote in a statement. “This was a huge victory for my family, friends, community and the entire cannabis movement. I’ll take a moment to enjoy this, but make no mistake, there’s still much work to be done—my people need to be free—and that hard work begins now.”