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Last-known Californian in prison for federal cannabis charges released after 15 years

Last known Californian serving time for federal medical cannabis charges released
Last known Californian serving time for federal medical cannabis charges released 03:28

Medical marijuana has been legal in California for more than a quarter of a century, but the impact of the federal ban is still apparent all these years later. One Bay Area man is finally free after serving 15 years in prison for opening a licensed medical cannabis shop.

Luke Scarmazzo represents the end of an era. He is the last known Californian to be released from prison for a federal medical cannabis charge.

It's been just 20 days since Scarmazzo was released, and he's still adjusting to his life back in Modesto.

"I'm making a chicken salad lunch – something I didn't get to do a lot in prison so I'm, like, super taking advantage of it," Scarmazzo told CBS News Bay Area.

He crunches up Doritos to top his salad, a trick he picked up while serving nearly 15 years of a 22-year federal sentence.

In 2004 Scarmazzo and his business partner opened the first licensed medical cannabis store in the Central Valley.

"It was an uncertainty, it was an unknown," Scarmazzo explained. "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."

At first, he saw huge success in part due to local regulations that created a monopoly for his business. It quickly turned into a passion, helping people going through intense treatments ease their pains.

"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,'" Scarmazzo said. "But when the city realized what they had done they called the federal government."

Medicinal cannabis has been legal in California since 1996 and recreationally since 2018. But possession and distribution of cannabis — medicinal or not — remains illegal under federal law and carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years, just what Scarmazzo received.

"[I 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?" said Scarmazzo.

Over the next 15 years he was transferred to several federal prisons across the country, an experience he describes as traumatic. But the worst part, he said, was being away from his daughter who is now 20 years old.

"It didn't feel like we were wrongly convicted but it felt like it was an injustice not only for the amount of time we received on a first-time drug offense," Scarmazzo recalled. "It had to be somebody and it might as well have been me."

Scarmazzo was considered for clemency under President Trump but was ultimately passed over just before President Biden's inauguration. Although Biden made a campaign promise to decriminalize cannabis, Scarmazzo says it's not enough. He's calling for it to be legalized federally.

"It's very important to me to make sure I get everyone incarcerated for cannabis out of prison," said Scarmazzo. "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."

Upon his release, the judge in Scarmazzo's case wrote a 29-page opinion that could set a significant precedent for cannabis offenders moving forward, which Scarmazzo says may be more impactful for others than a pardon would have been for himself.

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