California Today: Still Serving Time for Marijuana


California Today: Still Serving Time for Marijuana

BY: Mike McPhate – NY Times – May 17, 2017

Cannabis may now be legal here, but drug policy experts say many Californians remain behind bars on marijuana-related charges.

Much of the attention after the passage of Proposition 64 last fall focused on its relaxing of rules against recreational marijuana use.

But the measure also called for retroactively eliminating the penalties for minor pot crimes, and reducing those for bigger ones such as cultivating and selling.

A survey published last fall by the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that pushes for drug law reform, estimated that more than 2,100 people were jailed for marijuana-only offenses in California in 2015.

Since November, hundreds of such inmates had been released after filing petitions under Proposition 64, said Eunisses Hernandez, a California-based program coordinator for the alliance.

That’s meant many happy reunions with family and chances for fresh starts. “It’s been very positive,” Ms. Hernandez said.

What’s more, many cases winding through the courts that might otherwise have resulted in jail time have been knocked down, according to a report that cited lawyers across the state in The Leaf, a cannabis-focused publication.

California’s forgiving mood has been in sharp contrast, however, to the plight of another class of inmates — people behind bars on federal charges that still treat marijuana as an illegal drug.

For those Californians, Proposition 64 has made essentially no difference, lawyers say.

Data on how many Californians are serving time in federal marijuana cases was not available, but drug policy experts said the figure was at least in the hundreds. Nationwide in 2016, more than 3,500 people were sentenced for federal pot offenses.

In a number of cases, Californians are serving terms of 20 years or more.

That category includes Luke Scarmazzo.

In 2008, Mr. Scarmazzo, of Modesto, was given nearly 22 years in federal prison on charges of marijuana distribution and running a continuing criminal enterprise. His partner, Ricardo Montes, got 20 years.

The men argued that they were running a legitimate medical marijuana dispensary, permissible under California law. Behind bars, they appealed to President Barack Obama for pardons, and last January he granted one to Mr. Montes.

But the president took a pass on Mr. Scarmazzo, who is now 36. (Mr. Obama offered no explanation, but some of Mr. Scarmazzo’s supporters believe a prior assault conviction played a role.)

Barring any change, Mr. Scarmazzo won’t be released until 2027.

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