By Gillian Brassil, McClatchy Washington Bureau
It’s the little things — going to the grocery store, cleaning the house, finishing yardwork — that Luke Scarmazzo is grateful for after being imprisoned for something that very likely wouldn’t land him there now.
The 42-year-old talked about walking his father’s blue pit bull and daughter’s tri-coloured Frenchie with his dad around the block of their Modesto home the other day.
“A lot of people would take that for granted,” Scarmazzo said in a telephone interview. “I was soaking up every minute of it.”
Scarmazzo recently was released from federal prison after almost 15 years for operating a medical marijuana dispensary in Modesto — something that is, and was, legal in California but remains a violation of federal law.
Since he was incarcerated, the federal criminal justice system has greatly reduced its prosecution and sentencing of cannabis distributors. The average sentence for trafficking marijuana was 31 months in 2019, per the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets guidelines for the courts. It is looking at revisions for compassionate releases, which Scarmazzo sought.
In 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice recommended deferring to states on enforcing drug laws. California legalized marijuana for medical use in 1996 and recreational use for adults in 2016. While Attorney General Jeff Sessions under former President Donald Trump asked to ramp up federal prosecution in 2018, the proposal has since fallen flat. Under the Biden administration, Attorney General Merrick Garland has affirmed that the federal government should not go after people complying with state laws.
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That — coupled with Scarmazzo’s behaviour, achievements, and co-founder’s clemency in 2017 — led a federal judge to grant his compassionate release Feb. 3.
“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,” wrote Judge Dale A. Drozd in the Eastern District of California, “particularly in states like California that have legalized those activities with some restrictions.”
Congressional leaders and President Joe Biden have vowed to change laws around weed, with many pushing for widespread legalization or at least reducing its status as a dangerous and addictive drug.
Tuesday, 11 days out of prison, Scarmazzo said he was ready to lead the charge for change. “I will not rest until every single person who’s incarcerated for a nonviolent cannabis conviction is free,” he said.
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Scarmazzo, Montes and Arsons
Marijuana was in Scarmazzo’s life growing up. People he knew grew, sold and smoked it. “The more that it’s regulated, the more that it’s out in the open and able to be accessed by people, I think it’s going to be a huge benefit to society,” he said.
Scarmazzo and his friend Ricardo Ruiz Montes started California Healthcare Collective in Modesto in 2004, operating normally until they were raided by federal law enforcement in 2006 — 10 years after medical cannabis was legalized in California. Scarmazzo, as chief financial officer, and Montes, as chief executive, had obtained a business license, paid taxes and made sure customers had doctors’ notes.
Still, each faced a mandatory 20-year minimum prison term under federal law. In 2008, Scarmazzo was sentenced to almost 22 years in prison, Montes to 20.
Along the way, as they fought for release or at least to have their case reexamined, Scarmazzo befriended a number of people who were able to help. One was Weldon Angelos, a music producer who launched Mission (Green) after he was imprisoned on marijuana distribution charges and released. Then there was Georgean Arsons, now 80, whose son became friends with Scarmazzo while awaiting sentencing in a Fresno jail.
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When Scarmazzo, who refers to Arsons as his “second mother,” asked for her help with seeking educational courses, their relationship blossomed.
Arsons worked in the corporate world for most of her life, mainly with AT&T and pharmaceutical companies. Inspired to help others, she took paralegal training and continues to fight for the release of many inmates across the country in her son’s memory.
Roland C. Arsons loved people and embraced helping others, his mother said in a telephone interview. Thankfully, Georgean and Roland Arsons were reunited after he was released from prison. He died in 2016.
“I do all this work for my son,” she said.
Scarmazzo, with help, drafted his and Montes’ petitions for clemency under former President Barack Obama after he instituted his Clemency Project 2014 to encourage federal inmates to seek commutations. Arsons typed them.
Obama granted Montes clemency and commuted his sentence in 2017, but did not for Scarmazzo, though there was hardly a difference between their appeals.
Of that moment, Arsons said, “You’re warm on one side and you’re ice cold on the other.”
Scarmazzo was happy for Montes, and not angry for himself. Rather, he said it was not his time — that this time in prison shaped him into a better person and advocate. He remained optimistic through a series of prolonged legal actions to gain his freedom, with Arsons at his side.
Early on a Friday almost two weeks ago, it became his time.
That’s when Scarmazzo got the email that said he was to be released from the federal penitentiary in Yazoo City, Mississippi, where he was serving part of his sentence. He was released under supervision, which prohibits him from possessing or using drugs unlawfully for the next five years.
Scarmazzo said he was shocked, pleased, and so excited to see his 20-year-old daughter, Jasmine, who was just 5 when he was sent to prison. Though she attends school in Jersey City, N.J., she flew out to meet her father after he landed in California.
“It was one of the hardest parts of my incarceration was just not not being able to be there for her,” he said, “not being able to be present with her.”
Federal marijuana laws
The federal government classifies marijuana as one of the most dangerous and addictive drugs alongside heroin — a higher scheduling than cocaine. Set in the 1970s, weed’s scheduling came from racist rhetoric promulgated in the 1930s and a lack of proven medical use. Recent studies have indicated that cannabis has various uses, most commonly to treat chronic pain.
California legalized both medicinal and recreational marijuana use. Through a voter-approved ballot initiative in 1996, it was the first state to legalize medical marijuana. Through another initiative in 2016, voters allowed the legalization of recreational marijuana for adults over 21.
But federal law, which supersedes state law, maintains cannabis is an illegal drug.
Biden vowed to decriminalize cannabis use and release people imprisoned on marijuana-use convictions as part of his 2020 campaign. “And, he will support the legalization of cannabis for medical purposes, leave decisions regarding legalization for recreational use up to the states, and reschedule cannabis as a schedule II drug so researchers can study its positive and negative impacts,” according to his campaign website.
In October 2022, Biden pardoned federal offenders of simple possession, but not for “any other offenses related to marijuana or other controlled substances.” He urged governors to do the same for state and local offenders and said the administration would review how weed should be federally categorized.
“Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana,” Biden said in the statement. The president recommended that limitations on trafficking, marketing and underage sales remain.
Later that fall, Congress sent a standalone weed bill to the president’s desk for the first time, indicating a broader change in views on the drug. Sponsored by California Democrat Dianne Feinstein in the Senate and Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer in the House of Representatives, the legislation aimed to ease the ability to research marijuana’s medicinal uses and drawbacks.
Scarmazzo supports these steps but said the president needs to go further. When he comes to Washington, D.C., in the spring to talk with lawmakers, he hopes to speak with Biden at the White House.
Said Scarmazzo, “I don’t think that fulfilled his promise. I think that his promise was to make sure that nobody was incarcerated for cannabis anymore, for nonviolent cannabis offenses.”
Though he has spent his nearly two weeks of freedom with his friends and family, his ailing parents and his daughter, he’s already started to work on ensuring no parent has to be separated from their children like he was for growing and selling weed.
To everyone imprisoned, Scarmazzo has a message: “We’re coming for you guys.”
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