Just because cannabis is legal in California doesn’t mean those behind bars for federal offenses related to it will see the light of day anytime soon. It’s a harsh reality when those facing time, or who are already serving it, for cannabis related offenses are being released or facing lesser charges because their “crimes” weren’t on the federal level. Unfortunately, despite the turning of the tide with cannabis prohibition among individual states, its legality on the federal level doesn’t look like it will budge anytime soon.
Stuck Behind Bars
Luke Scarmazzo sits behind bars in a federal prison, charged with marijuana distribution and running a continuing criminal enterprise. Early in the Californian cannabis industry, Luke, along with a friend from high school, Ricardo Montes, opened a medical marijuana store. Only in their twenties, they were at one point bringing in over $10,000 a month in sales. In fact, it’s estimated that they had roughly $9 million in transactions between 2005 to 2007. However, between the two men, Scarmazzo held little back when it came to showing off his success. From flaunting his money in a YouTube video to driving a flashy car, Luke had this to say about his behavior:
“I was young and came into more money than we had ever seen before,” Scarmazzo said in phone interview with The Sacramento Bee last month from a federal prison in the Valley town of Mendota. “I bought things and spent carelessly, not thinking of the future – nor how it looked.”
Luke also had a prior assault offense, which might have contributed to why he’s still behind bars.
In January of 2017, President Obama granted Montes clemency. His scheduled release date from prison was set for May 19th, 2017. After spending 9 years behind bars, he won’t have to finish out the rest of his 20 year sentence. This act received much praise, as two jurors on the case had written letters seeking leniency for the men and Montes’ daughters created an online petition titled “Free Our Dads!”.
Scarmazzo, on the other hand, received word in January that his request to have his sentence commuted was denied. While his crime was no greater than his partner, the indiscretions of his past could have influenced this decision. In the meantime, he will have to sit and wait to finish out his 21 year and 10 month sentence; unless, of course, something drastically changes for those charged with federal marijuana crimes.
A Look At The Numbers
Since so many states have adopted laws allowing the use of cannabis, the number of people sentenced for federal crimes pertaining to cannabis has gone down for the fifth year in a row. While this sounds like good news, the fact that people operating legal businesses with regard to cannabis under state laws can still face persecution under federal laws makes for a gamble.
In 2013, the Department of Justice issued a statement to federal prosecutors, giving them leeway when it comes to ignoring certain offenses related to cannabis. It instead focuses on allowing the states and local jurisdictions to enforce their own laws pertaining to the matter. It’s possible that this has helped to cut down on some of the federal arrests and sentences.
At present, it’s estimated that the number of people sitting behind bars in California for federal marijuana charges is in the hundreds. Many of these inmates are in prison for 20 years or more for their crimes. It’s a sharp contrast between those arrested for breaking federal law as opposed to state law. Since the enactment of Proposition 64 in California, people convicted of crimes on the state level have been able to file petitions seeking release or a reduction in their sentence. This is great news for some; but, when the only difference between whether or not someone will spend time behind bars for cannabis related charges is based on who’s arresting them for a crime, the disparity seems more than unfair. When one dad gets to go home to his children and another man who’s guilty of the same crime cannot, it’s a tragic failure of the justice system.