Luke Scarmazzo, California’s Last Federal Medical Marijuana Prisoner

UPDATE 6/26/21: A judge has scheduled oral arguments via zoom regarding Luke’s release motion on June 30th at 10am PST. There is a telephonic link for the public to listen to the proceedings: 1-877-402-9757, Access Code 6966236# then press #. Each attorney gets 15 mins. Luke’s hearing is scheduled last of five hearings. A decision could come within days of the hearing. 

On September 27, 2006, the DEA raided California Healthcare Collective, a medical marijuana dispensary in Modesto that had been operating and paying taxes for more than a year. A 2007 Fresno Bee story revealed that the focus of the federally funded, Fresno-based Central Valley High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area and its chief Bill Ruzzamenti had shifted from methamphetamine to marijuana.

In a ceremony on January 18 of that year, then White House drug czar John Walters honored the state, local and federal officers who took down the California Healthcare Collective. Ruzzamenti nominated the Modesto police officers and others who received the “National Marijuana Initiative” awards. The Central Valley HIDTA’s goal had been “to reduce the manufacture, trafficking and distribution of methamphetamine, precursor chemicals and other dangerous drugs.” Over time, the Valley’s big meth labs decamped for Mexico—so agents sought new targets.

CHC proprietors Ricardo Montes and Luke Scarmazzo, both 26, were found guilty of operating a “continuing criminal enterprise” in May 2008. On learning that the offense carried a mandatory 20-year minimum sentence, two jurors filed declarations with U.S. District Court in Fresno recanting their verdict, and lawyers sought a retrial.

Scarmazzo sentenced to 21 years and 10 months and Montes to 20 years. On January 5, 2011, a federal appeals court upheld the convictions of Scarmazzo and Montes, denying them a new trial. “We followed California law to the letter,” Scarmazzo stated. “We paid our taxes. We went to work every day providing a benefit and service to the community. Yet in the end, we were made out to look like common criminals.”

Ricardo Montes was granted clemency by President Obama and was released in May 2017. Unfortunately, and inexplicably, his co-defendant Scarmazzo’s petition was denied. In January 2021, Luke was denied release at the last minute by President Trump.

Luke posted on his Facebook page (1/27/21) that, “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. 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.”

Luke has served 14 years and isn’t scheduled for release until 2027. He is the last known federal medical marijuana prisoner from California. He currently has two appeals pending in court, and a pending petition with the President, which could #FreeLukeScarmazzo. Read more about Luke or watch The Young Turks “Injustice” episode about him.

For the final question at the 4/20/21 White House press conference, reporter Scott Bixby of The Daily Beast asked whether the Biden administration plans to revisit requests for clemency for federal cannabis convictions, citing Scarmazzo and his 22-year sentence.

“Well, I would just take it as an opportunity to reiterate that the president supports legalizing medicinal marijuana,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said. “It sounds like this would have been applicable in this case, and of course decriminalizing marijuana use and automatically expunging any prior criminal records.” She said she couldn’t “get ahead” of any specific cases, and no action has been taken on Luke’s behalf, despite Biden’s campaign promise to “broadly use his clemency power for certain non-violent and drug crimes,” saying, “anyone who has a [marijuana] record should be let out of jail.”

A Change.org petition aimed at President Biden started by Luke’s daughter Jasmine, who was five years old when he went to prison, has over 150,000 signatures. Sign the petition. 

Luke Scarmazzo 63131-097
USP Yazoo City
PO BOX 5000
Yazoo City, MS 39194
Release date: 03/14/2027

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