A federal court on Thursday granted the early release of a man who’s served 14 years in prison over his role in operating a state-legal medical marijuana dispensary in California—with the judge recognizing that compassionate release is warranted, in part, due to the dramatic shift in the legal landscape for cannabis.
Luke Scarmazzo was 26 years old in 2006 when he faced federal prosecution over the California-based dispensary. He was sentenced to 21 years in federal prison over the activity at a time before the Justice Department started formally taking a more hands-off approach to state marijuana programs.
Activists have widely cited his case as exemplary of the need for comprehensive reform. That includes Weldon Angelos, who received a presidential pardon under the Trump administration for a cannabis case and has since become a major figure in the clemency and drug policy reform movement.
Angelos met Scarmazzo in prison, where they served together for seven years. Angelos committed to his friend that he’d advocate for his release, and that effort paid off on Thursday with the decision from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California.
“Luke’s story is one of the most tragic stories of our criminal justice system,” Angelos, who delivered the news to Scarmazzo on the phone on Friday morning, told Marijuana Moment. “He was following state law but treated as a drug kingpin by the federal system. I’m finally relieved that he can go home to his family and have a chance at rebuilding his life after serving 14 years in prison.”
“We’ve helped a lot of people, but this one is different,” Angelos said of his advocacy work through his non-profit The Weldon Project. “Luke is my friend and someone I’ve been fighting for since we were in prison together seven years ago. And now Luke has the ability to join us in this fight to free those we have both left behind.”
Scarmazzo is expected to be released on Friday.
Happy to announce that Luke is being released today! The judge granted compassionate release based on policy changes at the federal! https://t.co/dLiuAvSVBF
— Weldon Angelos (@weldon_angelos) February 3, 2023
As Judge Dale Drozd explained in his 29-page ruling, there are a number of factors that led the court to determine that Scarmazzo was deserving of compassionate release, which is meant for cases where there are “extraordinary and compelling” reasons for relief.
His co-defendant who served as CEO of the dispensary and faced an equivalent conviction was pardoned under the Obama administration. His family is experiencing personal struggles, including his father who’s battling terminal cancer. He exhibited good behavior in prison and has resources and job prospects to succeed.
What Angelos is hoping, moreover, is that the judge’s perspective on the shift in marijuana policy and enforcement will establish precedent that could influence more federal courts to treat cannabis cases with similar discretion.
“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 fifteen 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,’” the judge wrote. “This is particularly true in California where defendant was operating his marijuana dispensary.”
“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.”
The ruling also acknowledges that Congress has since 2014 consistently approved an appropriations rider that generally prevents the Justice Department from using its funding to interfere in state medical cannabis programs. And it referenced comments from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who reflected upon the “contradictory” and “unstable” marijuana policy position of the federal government in 2021.
Also, “marijuana offenders who are convicted of federal criminal offenses now appear to be receiving significantly shorter sentences than in the past,” the judge wrote.
“In short, there is no doubt in the undersigned’s mind that those who violate still existing federal marijuana laws today are being treated much differently by the federal criminal justice system than those engaging in similar conduct were at the time of defendant Scarmazzo’s criminal conduct (2004–06) and his prosecution, conviction and sentencing in this federal court (2006–08),” Drozd said.
These policy factors on their own might not have been enough to warrant compassionate release under the existing standards, but the judge makes clear that Scarmazzo’s arguments can’t be entirely ignored: The times have changed and continue to change, and it makes less and less sense that some could serve decades in prison while others are considered legitimate business owners largely unburdened by the threat of federal prosecution.
“It has been a privilege to work on Luke’s behalf over the past few years,” attorney Kerrie Dent of the firm King & Spalding said in a statement to Marijuana Moment. “I have no doubt that Luke will use his freedom as an opportunity not only to work with groups like the Weldon Project to promote social change, but also to mentor young people in his community to ensure that they make good decisions and use their talents in positive ways.”
“Judge Drozd issued a thoughtful, well-reasoned opinion and reached the right result,” Dent said. “I believe he made the world a better place by granting Luke’s motion for compassionate release.”
Angelos added that what’s “interesting about the decision in this case is that the judge took into account the policy changes at the federal level in determining that Luke would not be subject to federal prosecution today.”
“The judge concluded that these changes in the legal landscape around cannabis constitute extraordinary and compelling circumstances warranting a reduction in sentence to time-served, which sets a new precedent for these kinds of cases,” he said.
The Biden administration, meanwhile, continues to face pressure to do more to grant cannabis clemency after the president issued a mass pardon last year for people who’ve committed federal marijuana possession offenses.
The pardons that he provided don’t technically expunge those records, as that falls beyond his executive authority—but he’s encouraged governors to follow his lead by granting relief at the state level where their authority may be different and where the bulk of cannabis cases have been prosecuted.
In terms of releasing currently incarcerated people, that’s something that advocates have strongly pushed for given that there are still thousands behind bars over federal cannabis offenses. But Biden has made clear that he’s only willing to extend relief to those with simple possession convictions and not those who’ve sold cannabis, for example.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) recently released a report that showed record-low federal marijuana prosecutions during the last fiscal year and noted that there aren’t any people currently serving time over cannabis possession.
Read the federal court’s compassionate release decision for Scarmazzo below:
Photo elements courtesy of rawpixel and Philip Steffan.