A meaningful life is what most look to leave behind on this earth – something that will last long after we’re gone. Whether that’s achieved by raising children who become well-rounded adults, influencing politics, or establishing a business to help those around you, no matter what “meaningful” means to you, we all hope to achieve this. Weldon Angelos is leading his through Mission Green, a nonprofit he founded to help those incarcerated for non-violent cannabis offenses, aiding them in securing clemency and ensuring they get the chance to lead meaningful lives they deserve just as he has.
Clemency is an extremely important and often unknown piece of our criminal justice system. To put it simply, clemency means mercy or compassion, awarded when a sentence is deemed unjust. Clemency can take the form of a reduced sentence or a full pardon of crimes. For Mission Green, clemency means the compassionate release of people who shouldn’t be suffering at the hands of outdated cannabis laws. One of those people is Luke Scarmazzo, our feature for this month’s Mission Green Spotlight, whose titles include business owner, writer, poet, musician, and favorite – dad.
The Story of Luke Scarmazzo
In 1996 California’s Proposition 215 passed, which legalized the cultivation, sale, and consumption of medical cannabis in the state. In the years following, many business owners and cannabis community members suffered at the hands of the federal government, being that there were no legal protections from agencies like the DEA. In 2006, 10 years after the passing of Proposition 215, Luke Scarmazzo would be the next victim to fall prey to the unjust federal war on cannabis.
California Healthcare Collective Cannabis Dispensary of Modesto
Luke Scarmazzo has been a vocal supporter for the legalization of cannabis for over 20 years. In 2004, roughly eight years after the legalization of medical cannabis in California, Luke and Ricardo Montes, his business partner, decided to open a legal dispensary 100 miles southeast of San Francisco in Modesto, California.
At that time, patients would have to drive an hour and a half each way to the Bay Area to find the nearest dispensary. The co-owners hoped to provide a solution for cannabis patients not only in Modesto, but in surrounding areas San Jose, Stockton, and Sacramento, the state capital.
After opening the front doors to the California Healthcare Collective (CHC) Luke recalled, “The next day, we came to work, the parking lot was full.” He stated in an interview with the Modesto Bee that there were an estimated 100 people in line waiting for CHC to open.
Several months after CHC’s successful opening, the city of Modesto barred any new dispensaries from opening, inadvertently fueling more success for CHC.
CHC Raided by the DEA
As the towns surrounding Modesto followed suit and barred new dispensaries from opening, operating dispensary owners felt emboldened at their newfound foothold in the medical cannabis market. That sense of security was short-lived, as it is around this time Scarmazzo says local city officials contacted federal agents. This prompted investigations that included officials from varying levels of government all the way down to local police officers. Who in the end of 2005 made multiple purchases at CHC, those purchases were used as part of the evidence needed to arrest Scarmazzo, his business partner, and 6 other individuals that were employed at CHC.
In September of 2006, the DEA raided CHC, seizing property and assets – all cash, and all cannabis.
Though per state law, he was a legal dispensary owner and operator, Scarmazzo was charged federally under the Continuing Criminal Enterprise (CCE) Statute. This statute is known as the king pen statute, most often used to prosecute cartel members and large-scale drug traffickers. Despite the fact that Luke was operating legally, as medical cannabis was legal, the CCE statute was the core of the case against him. The CCE statute carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years – Scarmazzo received a 22-year sentence.
The Fight for Freedom
In efforts to attain freedom, Luke has worked tirelessly with his legal team and organizations like Mission Green and The Weldon Project o secure his release. While it may not sound like much, this is the best Luke can do, being that prison rules do not allow individuals to advocate for themselves in any physical way while incarcerated – doing so can result in solitary confinement.
Between petitions and sharing his story through digital and print media, Luke has not lost faith that he, too, will follow in the footsteps of his business partner, who was released in 2017. Luke continues to fight for his freedom, while keeping in mind that others like him are in similar situations – incarcerated for buying or selling a plant that is now widely legal in the United States. Upon his release, Luke hopes to aid Weldon Angelos in helping others convicted of cannabis-related crimes secure clemency.
His trial, conviction, and time served have placed a toll on Luke, one he feels in more ways than one.
Over the nearly two years that California Healthcare Collective operated, it was stated in court documents that they grossed over $9 million dollars. While we can’t say for certain how much the company, and thus Luke, would have grossed over the last 16 years, we do know that as of 2018, California generated a whopping $2.75 billion dollars from the recreational cannabis industry.
With these numbers in mind, it’s fair to estimate that financially, Luke has lost a significant stream of revenue.
While there is no true way to calculate the personal loss of those affected by the war on cannabis, we hope the words of Luke Scarmazzo himself give you an idea of what he, and others like him, weather through an excerpt from his essay “A Jasmine Grows in a War”:
Prison life is hard. You experience loss, isolation, and loneliness, but those things are nothing compared to what my family has gone through – particularly my daughter. Remember, Jasmine was only 4 years old when I was arrested. Today, she is 18…I watched her grow up through pictures and inside of prison visiting rooms. But the thing that keeps me up at night, is that I now because she grew up with one or more incarcerated parents, she is more likely to become incarcerated herself. And the cycle of mass incarceration will continue. When I was 8 years old, I was playing baseball, when Jasmine was 8, she was eating a frozen burrito in a penitentiary visiting room.Luke Scarmazzo, via Instagram
Luke’s daughter’s name is Jasmine, and the war she has found herself growing up is the lingering War on Drugs that has harmed individuals such as her father.
Luke is incarcerated in Mississippi, thousands of miles away from his family in Modesto. He has had to go years without seeing his daughter, and situations like the pandemic have only exacerbated the difficulties of visits more.
Cannabis Legalization in California Today
12 years after Luke’s arrest, Proposition 64 was passed, legalizing recreational cannabis in the state of California. Today, there are dozens of dispensaries currently operating in Modesto, California.
Luke Scarmazzo is considered the last federal prisoner incarcerated for a California medical marijuana charge, according to California NORML. Presidents Obama and Trump have denied Luke’s appeals for clemency.
How You Can Help Luke Scarmazzo and Mission Green
There are many ways to show your support for those incarcerated for cannabis-related crimes. This is much larger than clemency – it’s about support. Showing them that someone on the outside cares about them and their wellbeing. This can be shown via donations to further important programs or by mailing letters directly to the incarcerated person you want to support.
Take a look at what you can do today, this very moment, to further the efforts of cannabis clemency and support and advocate for individuals such as Luke Scarmazzo.
Donate to Mission Green
“Prisons only feed you enough to keep you alive, not full.” —Weldon Angelos
What Weldon speaks to is a hard truth for all those who are incarcerated, including those in your cannabis community serving unjust prison sentences for cannabis-related offenses.
Donations to Mission Green help in two very important ways:
- Commissary. The first way your donation can impact incarcerated persons is buy them the means to access more filling food. A commissary is a store within a prison that has items for sale like food, hygiene products, and even writing instruments.
- Clemency. Your donation has a direct impact on cannabis clemency. Donations help to fuel the fight for executive pardons and clemency, which can include campaigning on behalf of their clemency, organizing clemency events with politicians, and any other needs.
Contact the White House
One of the most impactful ways to advocate on a wrongfully incarcerated persons’ behalf is by contacting the White House. This plea on their behalf is key to showing support for people like Luke, showing that they deserve to be released.
You can advocate on Luke and others’ behalf by email, phone or mail, though email – or in this case, the online contact form – is the quickest way to ensure your letter of support is received. Be sure to closely follow all instructions on the White House website to ensure your plea is read.
In your advocacy to the White House, we suggest including that clemency for these individuals is not only just but would be good for public safety and the economy. Mentioning any way you personally have been affected by this may also help.
Write to Luke Scarmazzo
Luke is currently being held in Mississippi at Federal Correctional Institute Yazoo City. You can ensure that he knows that he, nor his story, have been forgotten by writing directly to him. To ensure he receives your note, we suggest writing on plain white paper, unlined, with blue or black ink. Your letter should be mailed to:
Luke Scarmazzo 63131-097
USP Yazoo City
PO BOX 5000
Yazoo City, MS 39194
Verano Says Yes to Mission Green
We at Verano are passionate about cannabis clemency. At a time where 30+ states have legalized medical cannabis and 15+ recreational, the time to right the unjustness of the War on Drugs is now.
You can join this fight. Learn how to support Mission Green and cannabis clemency efforts.