Discover more from Cannabitch
Two Former Cannabis Prisoners Take On Criminal Justice Reform
Luke Scarmazzo and Weldon Angelos on how their time in federal prison inspired their passion for change
by Melody Bathaee
After years of working toward his request for clemency, being a hair away from freedom, and watching his presidential pardon fall through the cracks post-inauguration in 2021, the last known federal medical cannabis offender in California walked out of a Mississippi FCI prison on compassionate release.
This was a big win for not only Luke but for non-violent cannabis offenders around the country. One week after his release, he and Weldon Angelos, an activist and former offender who served seven years alongside Luke, are featured guests on The Plant Lady to talk about advocacy, policymaking, and what’s changed in the last 14 years since he’s been on the outside. They also dive into new developments in Weldon’s initiative, Mission Green, which fights for criminal justice reform for those affected by the War on Drugs.
In 2004, Luke owned and operated California Healthcare Collective medical cannabis dispensary in Modesto with his business partner, Ricardo Montes. Though their business was legal under CA Proposition 215—which legalized medical cultivation, sales, and consumption in the state—cannabis remained illegal under federal law.
“We didn’t feel like what we did was wrong,” Luke says in the episode. “We felt like we were following state law, paying our taxes, we had a license from the city, a license from the state–you know, we were checking all the boxes.”
About 1.5 years later, the Drug Enforcement Administration raided the dispensary and arrested Luke and Ricardo on identical charges. They were each sentenced to 22 years in federal prison.
As Luke watched recreational and medical cannabis legalization spread across the U.S. while locked up, saw more than a thousand dispensaries open in California, and read about new laws protecting both producers and consumers from federal involvement in state-level cases, he inquired about his own release. After all, his business was state-legal when he was arrested and convicted.
With the passage of CA Proposition 64 in 2016, which legalized sales of adult-use cannabis, he would have been operating legally and immune from prosecution. While still federally illegal, the United States government had long since stopped arresting people for operating marijuana businesses. Many people agreed: he should never have gone to prison in the first place.
Luke began writing his own clemency petitions from prison and had apparently secured his pardon under the Trump Administration, which never came to fruition for reasons unknown. Concurrent to that, beginning in 2019, he had filed for compassionate release and was awaiting his day in court.
To aid in these efforts, Weldon, Mission Green, and other advocates worked on his behalf, using their connections to local, state, and federal governments, including the White House, to help move all the initiatives in play forward—as well as bring public attention to Luke’s cause. It was the same strategy Weldon used to help achieve his own release in 2016, which included drumming up national attention and support by courting the press and getting celebrity and other high-profile endorsements. Now on the outside, Weldon made it his mission to secure the same fate for Luke.
Although it was a long journey filled with both joy and disappointment, Luke was brought home on Feb. 3, 2023, after winning his compassionate release case granted by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California. With only a few days at home, he has already begun working with Weldon and the initiative to fuel new projects and legislative advocacy: like wider use of the First Step Act, expungement, and relief for pardoned cannabis offenders.
For Luke, the real work begins now.
“I’m coming back for you guys. You guys are not forgotten, you guys are not lost,” he says.
Learn more about how Luke is catching up with the current world and his family, as well as Mission Green’s new program backed by Snoop Dogg and Death Row Records that aims to help non-violent cannabis offenders get back on their feet by listening to this episode of The Plant Lady.