It has been a long time since Ricardo Montes and Luke Scarmazzo opened their medical marijuana dispensary in Modesto. But they are still paying the price.
Montes and Scarmazzo are serving mandatory 20-year prison sentences for doing something that is now widely accepted: selling medicinal pot out of a retail store. Times have changed around them, but their circumstances have not.
The two men are now appealing to President Barack Obama for clemency, joining roughly 20,000 other federal inmates seeking the same reprieve in Obama’s last few months in office. But their case may be the single most egregious.
Appealing to Obama for clemency
Their daughters, now 13 and 10, have started a Change.org petition to get them out of prison. Whether they succeed remains to be seen.
“It is really sad, and it makes me cry,” said Nina Montes, a fifth-grader who wants to become a doctor when she grows up. Her visits to her father in prison, she said, remind her of all she and her family have lost. “All I remember is the cops coming and taking him away from me on my birthday. I cry when the time is over and we have to go, because we only get three hours, maybe two.”
Nina was four years old when Ricardo Montes was locked up. Now she is forced to drive five hours with her mother to see him at the federal prison in Lompoc.
“All I know is he made a mistake,” she said.
That is life for Montes and Scarmazzo, whose daughter Jasmine wants to become a lawyer. It is no accident the two girls dream of entering medicine and law. Jasmine still can’t understand why her dad can’t come home.
“There were so many tears,” Jasmine said of the day when her father was locked up. “My mom said, ‘Your dad got 20 years in prison.’ I didn’t really comprehend how long that was, I just knew I wasn’t going to see him for a long time. I knew why — because of the dispensary — but I was so confused. Why is he going to prison if he is helping people?”
Marijuana dispensaries now out in the open
California is now packed to the gills with legal cannabis dispensaries, as are a growing number of other states. Legal marijuana providers sell their stock on public markets, mainstream politicians are pushing for full legalization, and half of California smokes pot in the open. But still, Scarmazzo and Montes remain behind bars.
Their shop, the California Healthcare Collective, opened in 2004, just as dispensaries started popping up across the state. Some were tolerated. Others were not. In Southern California and the Bay Area, pot shops proliferated. In places like Modesto, though, cops and federal agents shut them down and tossed their owners in jail.
Montes said he and his partner were merely trying to meet a medical need in the Central Valley. Patients had been driving hours to San Francisco to get their medicinal marijuana.
“We were the only ones open and we helped a lot of patients who were sick and couldn’t travel,” Montes said. “It was actually a good thing for the Central Valley, but they didn’t see us as helping people out. They saw us as young kids making money and selling a narcotic drug. We tried to help people. We paid a lot of sales tax, but in that town it doesn’t matter.”
Conservative central California
Modesto, like much of the rest of Central California, is deeply conservative, and political leaders there are still fiercely opposed to any degree of reform. Like nearby Fresno County, officials in Modesto cracked down years ago. And they leaned on the feds to do it.
Dispensaries like the California Healthcare Collective are legal under state law, and were at the time. But federal law has prohibited them since long before California voters legalized medical marijuana in 1996.
Montes and Scarmazzo were raided on Jasmine’s fourth birthday in 2006, during the George W. Bush administration. Two years later, on Nina’s third birthday, they were sentenced – Montes to a 20-year mandatory minimum and Scarmazzo to 21 years and 10 months.
Now they are hoping Obama will add their name to the list of prisoners whose sentences he will commute on his way out of the White House. If he doesn’t, it could be a very long time before they see a free world again.