President Barack Obama has granted pardons and commutations of sentence to over 200 federal prisoners, most of them doing time for drug related offenses. In California, where cannabis is now legal for both medical and adult use, two industry pioneers serving 20-year federal sentences are hoping for their own executive-level intervention.
In 2006, Luke Scarmazzo and his high-school football buddy, Ricardo Montes, were running the most prominent medical marijuana dispensary in Modesto, California, the heart of the state’s conservative and (still to this day) marijuana-hostile Central Valley.
The Sacramento Bee reported the pair had cleared $9 million in sales in a little more than two years through their California Healthcare Collective, enough to net both men $13,000 a month in salary. Still in their mid-20s, the pair spent lavishly: an $137,000 Mercedes, for example.
Remember, this is 2006: California state law says that patients can assemble collectively to cultivate medicine—there are no state legal protections for storefront marijuana dispensaries. And forget the feds: George W. Bush is president of the United States, and his Justice Department had no compunction against raiding tiny, six-plant gardens grown for cancer patients.
While bureaucrats and elected officials tried to shut down the dispensary (which had a city business license) with civil actions, local police “infiltrated” the store while federal agents conducted surveillance.
Then came the now infamous music video that Scarmazzo wishes would “vanish from the internet.”
At the time, Scarmazzo was an aspiring rapper performing under the stage name “Kraz.” Using his dispensary profits, he staged an elaborate, professionally shot music video that showed him taunting Modesto politicians, bragging about selling and smoking copious amounts of weed and — most regrettably in retrospect — firing off the phrase “Fuck the feds!”
Within weeks, drug agents raided the dispensary. Authorities insisted the music video had nothing to do with the charges, but it was “played prominently” by prosecutors during the 2008 trial.
Speaking with the Bee by phone from federal prison, Scarmazzo said he regrets the video and chalks it up to the foolishness of youth.
“I was young and came into more money than we had ever seen before,” he said. “I bought things and spent carelessly, not thinking of the future – nor how it looked.”
Scarmazzo and Montes were charged in federal court, where state medical marijuana law is worthless as a defense—and where drug crimes carry stiff mandatory minimum sentences.
Six other people working with them pleaded guilty to lesser crimes and served sentences ranging from three years in prison to probation. The pair turned down an offer to serve a 10-year prison bid and went to trial instead. Both were convicted of “conducting in a continuing criminal enterprise” for repeated over-the-counter marijuana sales, which carries a 20-year mandatory minimum prison term.
And now? Everything that went wrong then would be just fine now, including dropping enough coin to make a whole reel of videos. State law says turning a profit on commercial cannabis sales is fine as long as you have a license. And Congress has removed funding for any Justice Department operation against a marijuana outfit following state law.
For these reasons, Montes and Scarmazzo believe they’re prime candidates to receive clemency from Barack Obama before the president leaves office on Jan. 20.
Following another 231 people pardoned or with sentences reduced, Obama has thus far cut the federal prison sentences of almost 1,200 inmates, nearly all of whom were doing time for drug crimes under tough-on-crime mandatory minimums.
But legal experts quoted by The Bee posit that the Modesto pair’s crimes may not fit the model — after all, they openly and willingly ran a business, and were more than cavalier about the possible risks, and the fact that it was illegal federally.
Additionally, many of those prisoners pardoned by Obama were doing time for simple possession or for other laws now viewed as, if not racially motivated, racially biased in execution.
None of that would happen now. And videos about running dispensaries would more likely be instructional how-to’s from the state government — not MTV wannabes.
TELL US, do you think Scarmazzo and Montes will receive an executive pardon?