Luke Scarmazzo was a legal dispensary owner, but he still ended up in prison.
Today, the American public stands nearly in unison on medical cannabis legalization, with Pew reporting that 91 percent of Americans support reform. When introducing her federal legalization bill in November 2021, Congresswoman Nancy Mace called the issue one “a supermajority of Americans support.”
That wasn’t the case when Luke Scarmazzo was arrested in 2006 and sentenced to 21.8 years in federal prison with a 20-year mandatory minimum. The public-at-large had not embraced medical pot like it does today. Nor had lawmakers made steps to protect state-legal ventures through directives like the 2013 Cole Memo.
As such, Scarmazzo, a self-described God- and sports-loving young man from the blue-collar town of Modesto, California, found himself, along with friend and co-founder Ricardo Montes, as two of the most prominent examples of the ongoing War on Drugs.
His crime? Co-owning a state-approved medical cannabis dispensary.
Feds Make Bust for State-Legal Pot Sales
In September 2004, Scarmazzo and Montes legally opened California Healthcare Collective (CHC) in Modesto. The decision was born out of a lifetime of being taught about the plant’s healing potential. California’s Proposition 215 and local necessity cemented the decision.
Scarmazzo reported that Modesto-area patients had to drive an hour and a half each way to the Bay Area to find “the nearest dispensary they could find to get the medication their doctor recommended.” With CHC, the co-owners hoped to provide a solution for the entire Central Valley, including Sacramento, the state capital.
CHC took off on its third day, thanks to a report from the Modesto Bee. “The next day, we came to work, the parking lot was full,” he recalled, estimating that 100 people were in line at the time of the store’s opening.
The success continued for weeks afterward. Patient count and revenues were often on the rise for roughly two months. Then, a city regulation change barred new dispensaries from opening. A grandfather clause allowed CHC to stay open and now operate without any threat of future local competition.
“Instead of getting rid of us, they ended up creating a monopoly,” Scarmazzo said.
The city inadvertently fueled the dispensary’s success. Instead of changing course, the surrounding towns did the same–further emboldening the dispensary and its owners. That’s when Scarmazzo said the city contacted federal agents, leading to an investigation of store activity, raids and the eventual arrest of the co-owners and six others in September 2006.
Two years after opening, CHC was shuttered. Scarmazzo was charged with 18 counts around conducting a criminal enterprise, conspiracy, manufacturing, distributing and possessing cannabis.
Despite being protected in California, the co-owners “always knew we were taking a risk federally,” said Scarmazzo, adding, “Back then was a way different time than it is now.”
Only a few dispensaries dared open while federal government threats lingered overhead. Still, CHC felt that what they were doing was right and just. The thought process was formed on a costly incorrect assumption, with Scarmazzo believing that operating a legal dispensary would land them a few years in prison, at most. Shock set in when they found out that the charges for operating an enterprise carried a mandatory 20-year minimum sentence.
“To hear those kinds of numbers, we couldn’t really fathom it,” he recalled.
In court documents, the Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA) states that Scarmazzo was offered a 10-year sentence as part of a plea deal that would see the enterprise charge dropped, but they refused the deal. In a follow-up response via the federal prison email system CorrLinks, the co-founders couldn’t accept the law and its assertion that dispensing medical cannabis was wrong. They also believed it was possible to assemble a jury with at least half that voted for medical cannabis legalization.
“Obviously this was another miscalculation but we made the decision we thought best at the time,” he said.
More shock came during Scarmazzo’s trial. “We couldn’t say the words’ California law,’ ‘medical marijuana’—we couldn’t argue that cannabis has medical efficacy,” he stated. The next surprise came when prosecutors used his art against him.
The AUSA submitted an August 2006 rap video made by Luke as evidence. Prosecution played the track in court, highlighting lyrics that touted Scarmazzo as a “businessman” and saying “Fuck the Feds.” Scarmazzo contends that he said “Fuck the Feds” concerning regulators’ refusal to reform cannabis laws, not regarding the operation of an illegal enterprise.
In the end, Scarmazzo was found guilty and sentenced to 21.8 years in federal prison. Several rounds of appeals have been denied, including a petition for a new trial after two jurors filed verdict recantations with the U.S. District Court in Fresno.
Fighting for Freedom Continues
A 2014 Obama admin clemency initiative had Scarmazzo, then housed at a medium-security prison in Mendota, California, working with Weldon Angelos, a fellow inmate serving a 55-year mandatory minimum sentence for a nonviolent cannabis charge. Angelos had extensive experience with clemency petitions after his case garnered widespread support among advocates.
The two began working on filings for themselves, Montes and any other inmates fitting the Obama administration’s criteria. Additional services included connecting inmates with lawyers and advocates. The effort became a clemency clinic.
Angelos is now the president and co-founder of The Weldon Project, acting as a leading advocate for nonviolent drug offenses. He continues to fight for Scarmazzo’s compassionate release after his release in May 2016 after receiving a sentence reduction.
“I figured Luke would beat me to the door,” said Angelos.
He recalls the two walking the track during his final days in prison, laying out the next steps to ensure that Montes and Scarmazzo would follow him out the door soon enough. Angelos tapped into his influential network of celebrities and bipartisan politicians who helped him receive early release.
The CHC founders had the support of influential politicians, Angelos stated. The momentum gained, but a choice by prosecutors altered the paths of Montes and Scarmazzo. Like Angelos, prosecutors opted to allow Montes’ petition to continue onward. With Scarmazzo, they fought back, with it believed that his rap video played a significant part in the decision.
“It’s obviously the video,” Angelos stated as the rationale, adding that other reasons are out there, but none he’s heard have been justifiable. Whatever the case may be, Montes was released in January 2017.
Pained for his own result but happy to see his friends released, Scarmazzo pushed on with petitions. He also got his story told in print and digital media, helping spread awareness for him and other offenders. Angelos was invited to the White House to meet with the Trump administration. He used his time to lobby for Scarmazzo’s release and those with similar nonviolent drug sentences.
In January 2020, the final days of the Trump presidency saw renewed hope for Scarmazzo with a wave of influential figures including former Governor Gary Johsnon, hip-hop star Drake and NBA legend Kevin Garnett among the group signing onto Angelos’ Mission [Green] initiative. His Presidential clemency seemed confirmed on January 19, 2021, the day before Joe Biden would be sworn in as president.
Officials told Luke and his family to prepare for his release and flight back to Modesto. The family bought a plane ticket and Luke had his bags packed. At the same time, Angelos was all but assured that Scarmazzo would be on the President’s final list of those granted executive clemency. As such, he moved to advocate for others to gain their freedom. Unfortunately, Angelos reports that pushback within the Department of Justice led Scarmazzo and dozens of others like him to be excluded from the final order.
As the hours passed, Scarmazzo’s mind raced, unaware of the decision made in Washington, D.C. He thought of every possible reason why he was still in prison, citing every option from the pandemic to slow prison staff as the cause. Then, reality set in.
“When I saw Biden getting inaugurated, I knew that it wasn’t going to happen,” he recalled.
The result left Scarmazzo wondering how it happened. How did he get to the literal door before being rejected once again? In time, the pain turned to acceptance before turning into fuel. Hope remains in several forms. A compassionate release case has been in the works for years, citing changing legal circumstances around cannabis as the primary factor.
“He couldn’t even be prosecuted today,” said Angelos, highlighting the protections legal shops now have from federal regulators.
Not Giving Up the Fight
Angelos and other compassionate release advocates continue to meet with the Biden administration in hopes of seeing sweeping reform. While waiting for more developments, Scarmazzo remains upbeat, finding the positive in his situation.
“If me being in here helps some other guys get out, I’m with it,” he said, noting the importance of sharing his story and those like him.
Scarmazzo added, “If I gotta fight a little bit longer, then I gotta fight a little bit longer.”
Today, the 41-year-old Scarmazzo sits across the country from his family in Yazoo City, Mississippi, only seeing them once in a handful of years. Unless granted an early release, he will be out of prison in March 2027. He continues to speak with Montes and doesn’t try to overthink about post-prison life while inside.
One thing is clear: Scarmazzo is committed to following in the path of people like Angelos and other nonviolent cannabis prisoners turned advocates. Determined to do the work until “every last one is out,” he urges the public to consider the people in prison. Describing victims of the drug war as everyday people, Scarmazzo said, “They’re your neighbors, they work at the mechanic shop, they’re the people you played sports with.”
He added, “These are regular American people that have to go through this.”
At the same time, Angelos calls for additional support from the cannabis industry. He noted the similarities in the circumstances between themselves and Scarmazzo.
“There should be more outrage about Luke’s case because these individuals, everybody, right now that’s in the cannabis industry, are openly violating federal law,” Angelos stated.
While advocating for more support, Angelos points towards recent comments from Press Secretary Jen Psaki on April 20, 2021, regarding nonviolent marijuana sentences, citing Scarmazzo’s case specifically. Psaki’s response included a reiteration of President Biden’s support for medical cannabis, decriminalization and automatic expungement.
The Press Secretary added, “It sounds like it’s applicable in this, or would have been applicable in this case,” adding that she couldn’t comment on individual matters.