California cannabis prisoner Luke Scarmazzo was freed from prison on Feb. 3, with help from Mission Green, a campaign led by The Weldon Project. “Today, after serving nearly 15 years in prison for operating a cannabis dispensary, I was granted my freedom,” Scarmazzo wrote on his Facebook page. “The feeling is surreal. We’ve worked toward this day for so long. 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.”
Scarmazzo owned a Modesto-based dispensary, called the California Healthcare Collective (CHC), with Ricardo Montes in 2004. In September 2006, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) raided CHC and Scarmazzo and Montes, who were 26 at the time, were found guilty in 2008. Ultimately Scarmazzo was sentenced to 21 years and 10 months, and Montes was sentenced to 20 years. Montes was later pardoned by former President Barack Obama in 2017, but Scarmazzo remained in prison.
Scarmazzo petitioned for release in January 2021, but was denied. On Facebook, he shared the details of his life in prison after the denial. “I have been in this quarantine unit in a federal penitentiary at Yazoo City, Mississippi for 91 days. When I arrived here prison officials lied and told me I’d only be here the standard 14 days. This, despite me being ‘COVID recovered’ in September 2020, with at least a temporary acquired natural immunity,” Scarmazzo wrote. “I’m locked into my cell 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Out of 168 hour week, I’m allowed out of my cell for 3 hours to take a shower and use the phone; the other 165 I’m in a concrete box. I haven’t felt the warm sun or inhaled a breath of fresh air in over 3 months. I’m fed enough to be kept alive and confined in frigid temperatures. And these are just a few of the blatant constitutional and human rights violations that I endure daily without just cause.”
During his sentence, Scarmazzo met Weldon Angelos, an inmate who was sentenced to 55 years in prison for a cannabis conviction. The two spent seven years in prison together, but eventually in 2016 Angelos was released after having served for 13 years, and received a full pardoned in December 2020. After being released, Angelos founded The Weldon Project and has continued to advocate for the release of other prisoners who are still serving time for cannabis convictions.
“Happy to announce that Luke is being released today! The judge granted compassionate release based on policy changes at the federal!” Angelos shared on Twitter the day that Scarmazzo was released.
Judge Dale Drozd issued a compassionate release order based on his case. “Defendant Scarmazzo is certainly correct when he argues that there have been ‘dramatic changes in the legal landscape concerning the sale and use of marijuana’ over the 15 years since he was sentenced, including ‘changes in [state] marijuana laws, Congress’s perspective, public sentiment, the Justice Department’s enforcement policies, and…case law.’ This is particularly true in California where [the] defendant was operating his marijuana dispensary,” Drozd wrote. “While federal law remains unchanged—still making the possession, cultivation and distribution of marijuana unlawful and subject to criminal penalties—federal prosecutions for marijuana-related offenses have been curbed significantly, particularly in states like California that have legalized those activities with some restrictions. In the undersigned’s experience, for the most part federal prosecution of marijuana offenses in California is now limited to those offenders engaged in large, unauthorized cultivation sites located on federal lands.”
Like Angelos, Scarmazzo has pledged to help others like himself be freed from prison for cannabis convictions. In October 2022, the U.S. Sentencing Commission estimated that more than 6,577 people who receive pardons from the Biden administration after President Joe Biden announced pardons for simple cannabis possession. California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced 10 pardons in December 2022, with at least two of those prisoners having cannabis convictions. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf also recently pardoned 2,500 people in January 2023, 400 of which were convicted of nonviolent cannabis offenses.