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Central Valley | Drug War

Central Valley Drug Wars (the sentencing)
by Mike Rhodes ( mikerhodes [at] comcast.net )
Saturday Nov 22nd, 2008 1:32 PM
Luke Scarmazzo was sentenced to 21 years and 8 months in prison and Ricardo Ruiz Montes got 20 years for operating a marijuana dispensary in Modesto. Sentencing before Federal judge Oliver Wanger took place on November 21, 2008. Luke and Ricardo had a licence to run the dispensary and paid taxes. The conflict between state and federal laws are what led to their arrest and conviction.
Central Valley Drug Wars (the sentencing)

Luke Scarmazzo was sentenced to 21 years and 8 months in prison and Ricardo Ruiz Montes got 20 years for operating a marijuana dispensary in Modesto. Sentencing before Federal judge Oliver Wanger took place on November 21, 2008. Luke and Ricardo had a licence to run the dispensary and paid taxes. The conflict between state and federal laws are what led to their arrest and conviction.

The Fresno Bee reported the story about the conviction and sentencing of Scarmazzo and Montes on page 1of their local section today (November 22, 2008). In a bitter irony, on page 4 of the local section the Bee reports the following:

Applications for medical pot ID’s to be accepted

Fresno County will take applications for medical marijuana identification cards beginning next month. People can make an appointment to apply for the cards at the Department of Public Health by calling (559) 445-3434 weekdays between 8 AM and 5 PM. Cards cost $49 for people with Medi-Cal insurance and $107 for all others. Fees are due at the time the application is submitted. The Fresno County Board of Supervisors approved of the card program Sept. 9. The program takes effect Dec. 2. Application materials can be found on the Fresno County website at http://www.fcdph.org or can be picked up on the first floor clinic area of the Health Department at 1221 Fulton Mall. (End of Bee story)

Video taken while the case was in trial: http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2008/04/30/18495862.php

Coverage of the conviction: http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2008/05/16/18499788.php

More information: http://www.medicalmarijuanaofamerica.com/content/blogcategory/60/119/

The video shown in court: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E5niNz39Fco

The Fresno Bee article in today’s paper:

Lengthy terms in medical pot case
Aspiring hip-hop artist and his business partner ran a lucrative Modesto business.
By John Ellis / The Fresno Bee
11/21/08 22:52:38
More information

Click for site Local court and crime coverage
An aspiring hip-hop artist and his business partner in a lucrative Modesto medical-marijuana operation were given lengthy prison terms Friday for violating federal drug laws.

Luke Scarmazzo was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger to 21 years and eight months in prison, and Ricardo Ruiz Montes was given 20 years.

But as long as the sentences were for the two 28-year-old men, they could have been longer if Wanger had acceded to the wishes of federal prosecutors, who wanted 30 years for Scarmazzo and more than 24 years for Montes.

The case drew attention because of a controversial rap video titled "Business Man" that features a sneering, preening Scarmazzo who raises both middle fingers to the camera and says "[expletive] the feds."

Defense attorneys said the federal government went after Scarmazzo and Montes because the music video challenged law enforcement's authority.

The video was played multiple times during the trial for both men, but prosecutor Kathleen Servatius -- who participated in Friday's hearing via telephone -- said "we do not prosecute people because they sing songs; we prosecute people because they violate federal law."

The case also was closely watched because of the clash between state and federal marijuana laws.

To federal authorities, it was simple. Though California voters legalized the medical use of marijuana in 1996 under Proposition 215, federal law trumps state law and federal law views the drug -- even when used for medical purposes -- as illegal.

After the May 15 jury verdict, U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott said both men "were operating as drug dealers, plain and simple."

But on Friday, Scarmazzo cast himself and Montes as crusaders who went to trial rather than cut a plea deal with authorities, because they are fighting for the rights of medical-marijuana users.

Referring to himself and Montes as "political prisoners," he read a long statement to Wanger that touched on the nation's separation of powers and mandatory minimum sentences. He said both men have been on a hunger strike at the Fresno County Jail to protest their prison sentences and the "injustice of [their] confinement."

In an interview after the hearing, Scarmazzo's mother, June, said, "Luke is not a criminal. He is a political prisoner,"

Robert Forkner, who represented Montes, also expressed frustration in an interview.

"This is a sad day for all California voters and citizens who approved Prop. 215 by an overwhelming majority," he said. "Mr. Scarmazzo and Mr. Montes do not deserve 20 years in prison for operating a legally licensed business."

In September 2006, authorities raided the medical-marijuana dispensary, known as the California Healthcare Collective. During the trial, Servatius and co-prosecutor Elana Landau said the business raked in between $6 million and $9 million in less than two years of operation.

While Montes maintained a fairly low profile -- which Wanger acknowledged Friday -- Scarmazzo did the exact opposite.

He purchased Louis Vuitton handbags, Las Vegas hotel rooms and a $180,000 Mercedes-Benz automobile.

Still, both men maintained the business was a nonprofit venture, and Scarmazzo told prosecutors Friday that nonprofit groups still pay salaries to their top executives.

But federal authorities pointed out that for most of the time that the dispensary operated, it was a for-profit corporation, and even under California law, it is illegal to operate a cannabis club at a profit.

Both men faced 20-year mandatory minimum sentences after a federal court jury convicted them of operating a continuing criminal enterprise.

Defense attorney Anthony Capozzi, who represented Scarmazzo, already said he will appeal that conviction to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, because he said there was insufficient evidence to merit the continuing criminal enterprise verdict.

Should that charge be overturned, Scarmazzo would still face about 12 years in prison, and Montes 10, based on guilty verdicts for other drug charges associated with the medical-marijuana business.

With time credits, Scarmazzo could be released in 181/2 years, and Montes in about 17 years.
The reporter can be reached at jellis [at] fresnobee.com or(559) 441-6320.