A Bay Area man who served 15 years in federal prison for running California's first medical cannabis dispensary is finally home from jail.
Luke Scarmazzo and his business partner Ricardo Montes originally opened the California Healthcare Collective (CHC) back in 2004. The Golden State actually legalized medical marijuana way back in 1996, but the industry didn't really kick off until 2003, when the state finally established some rules and regulations for the industry. But even though medical pot was technically legal, state and federal authorities were still eager to keep enforcing draconian “War on Drugs” laws.
"It was an uncertainty, it was an unknown," said Scarmazzo to CBS News. "It was something that hadn't been done before so there were a lot of what-ifs. We knew we would get some pushback because the Central Valley tends to be more conservative but we couldn't imagine what ended up happening. There was some loose regulation but nothing that was exactly how you should operate so we took the route of 'Let's go above and beyond on regulation.' But when the city realized what they had done they called the federal government."
In 2006, the DEA raided the facility and charged the owners with distributing marijuana and running a criminal enterprise. And although the business owners were following California's medical marijuana laws and regulations, federal prosecutors charged them with criminal conspiracy charges generally reserved for hardcore drug dealers. In 2008, Scarmazzo was sentenced to 21 years and 10 months, and Montes was sentenced to 20 years.
Scarmazzo told CBS that he thought “this can't be true, like, how did we do everything right and follow all the state laws and do everything we were supposed to do and be found guilty of a charge that will put us away for 20-plus years?"
President Obama eventually pardoned Montes in 2017, but Scarmazzo's request for a pardon was denied, possibly due to an unrelated former assault charge on his criminal record. While serving his sentence, Scarmazzo met Weldon Angelos, a fellow inmate who had been sentenced to 55 years in federal prison for weed. Angelos was himself pardoned in 2020, and has since started The Weldon Project, a nonprofit that now works to free other cannabis prisoners.
Last month, Judge Dale Drozd finally granted Scarmazzo a compassionate release order. “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,” Drozd wrote in his ruling. “This is particularly true in California where [the] defendant was operating his marijuana dispensary... 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.”
It is believed that Scarmazzo was the last Californian to remain imprisoned for violating state-legal medical cannabis laws. Now that he is free at last, Scarmazzo said that he hopes to help others who have been jailed for similar crimes to finally gain freedom.
"It's very important to me to make sure I get everyone incarcerated for cannabis out of prison," he told CBS. "I don't want any more sons or daughters to lose a parent or son or daughter to a non-violent cannabis offense. It's not right, it's an injustice that continues to happen today."