Most Affected: Danny Rodriguez, Two-Time Victim of the Justice System

Danny Rodriguez’s first sentence, occurring in 1994 at the age of 20, was eventually deemed unconstitutional, but not before robbing him of 12 more years in prison than it should have. Rather than receiving a maximum ten years for the charge, he served 22. After over two decades in prison, Rodriguez was released and became embroiled in a contraband distribution ring, sending items like synthetic cannabis to prisoners across the country.

In 2017, his actions landed him in federal prison, where he received a 33 year sentence. Rodriguez told High Times in March that he didn’t think he could get in trouble for an over-the-counter synthetic cannabis. He claimed never to have imagined that he “Would receive a 33-year sentence for something that the Bureau of Prisons gives prisoners 30 days confinement.”

Like the 1994 case, they feel the system has delivered him another harsh sentence, noting that other ring members have not faced the same consequences.

While fighting for his freedom, the now-50-year-old Rodriguez is housed at USP Lee in Virginia with a release date of May 4, 2046. At USP Lee, a high-security prison, Rodriguez has seen his health deteriorate due to the COVID-19 pandemic. All the while, his family lives states away in Florida, struggling with their own health matters. The family, which includes father Fernando, mother Gloria and his wife Yanina Cheij, hopes they can reunite before anyone’s health worsens.

Hard To Say Goodbye

Growing up in the Miami area, Rodriguez had his run-ins with the law. By 1994, Danny Rodriguez’s criminal record prevented him from possessing a firearm. That year, he’d be arrested and charged on four counts, including two counts of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Initially charged by the state, federal authorities picked up the case three years later.

Ultimately, he’d be found guilty of the two felon in possession of a firearm charges. Deputy clerks cited the armed career criminal act as grounds to enhance the sentence from 10 years to 22. His legal team contested that his three years in the state system should count for time served, but that did not happen.

Years of court petitions seeking the acquittal or reset of the sentence ensued. In 2016, Rodriguez’s legal team would win out. Citing the 2015 Johnson v. United States decision, which, in part, contested the vaugeness of criminal statutes, Rodriguez’s 272 month sentence was amended to 120 months with the three years of state time served counting. In 2016, Rodriguez was released after over-serving the sentence by 12 years.

Post-release he opened a cleaning service in the Miami area. Still, Rodriguez said he felt indebted to his fellow inmates, who he’d formed a community with over two decades in prison. That feeling led him to working in a contraband distribution ring, during his supervised release, sending synthetic cannabis and other items to inmates. Rodriguez claims he never made money from the endeavor.

Likening fellow inmates to war buddies, Rodriguez said, “It’s very difficult to serve 20 years in prison, create a bond … and then just go home and say that part of my life never existed.”

The group planned to use sheets of paper soaked in synthetic THC, but authorities thwarted the operation before reaching any prisoners. Higher-ups in the organization were alleged to have provided evidence to the Feds in exchange for a lesser sentence. Rodriguez and his lawyers thought they could fight the case, believing synthetic cannabis did not fall under The Federal Analogue Act. But, instead of fighting the case, Rodriguez claims his legal team compelled him into pleading guilty with the belief he’d come home rather than go to prison. Ultimately, he was sentenced to 33 years in federal prison for synthetic cannabis and money laundering.

Danny’s father Fernando, courtesy of the Rodriguez family

A Family Fights For Freedom Again

Rodriguez’s family and advocates have rallied around him, calling for his release once again.

Efforts included a letter to then-President Trump written by Rodriguez’s mom. In the letter, she implored Trump to consider the disparity of the sentence, with Rodriguez receiving several decades while co-conspirators received probation.

“For God’s sake, pedophiles, criminal-illegals, rapists, murderers, even terrorists are given far lesser sentences for truly egregious crimes,” she wrote.

Efforts attracted the attention of prison rights advocate and former non-violent cannabis prisoner Weldon Angelos. Since gaining his release in May 2016 for non-violent cannabis charges, Angelos has fought for individuals like Rodriguez. The passion of Danny’s advocates and family resonated with Angelos, who started seeing social media posts about the case in 2021.

“I started looking into this, like ‘What’s this 33-year sentence for fake weed,’” Angelos recalled.

His organization, The Weldon Project, took up Rodriguez’s case as part of its Mission Green initiative, aimed at releasing prisoners and creating pathways for record expungements and pardons. He agrees that a sentencing disparity has occurred.

“Even if the co-defendants cooperated, the sentence disparity cannot be that large, especially when considering they were bigger players,” said Angelos.

As the fight for Rodriguez’s freedom rages on once again, the family must contend with their various health issues. The pandemic took a toll on Danny, with him moved twice in March 2021 to an outside medical facility for treatment. At the same time, Gloria’s health has put her in and out of emergency care in recent months. Fernando advocates for his son’s release while tending to his wife’s bedside.

While incarcerated, Angelos had his father pass away. He likened the experience to the Rodriguez family, citing concern for Fernando’s tenacious dedication.

“I talk to his dad frequently, and he does nothing but work on his son’s case,” reported Angelos. Rodriguez hopes to be moved to a lower-security prison closer to Florida in the coming months.

Angelos said the family and his organization are putting forth a package for President Biden to advocate for Rodriguez’s case and others like him. In the meantime, the public can take action by signing up for Rodriguez’s Change.org petition calling for his early release.

Angelos implores lawmakers and others to look beyond the case. “No one’s claiming Danny is a candy striper,” he said, adding, “We’re saying the sentence is so out of whack,” considering his current and past legal circumstances.

Awaiting any new developments in his case, Rodriguez finds himself with many thoughts, ranging from his family’s health to the idea of equal justice. One prevailing belief is that equal justice for all is a lost ideal.

“Equal justice evades our justice system,” said Rodriguez.

The post Most Affected: Danny Rodriguez, Two-Time Victim of the Justice System appeared first on High Times.

Most Affected: Danny Rodriguez, Two-Time Victim of the Justice System

Danny Rodriguez’s first sentence, occurring in 1994 at the age of 20, was eventually deemed unconstitutional, but not before robbing him of 12 more years in prison than it should have. Rather than receiving a maximum ten years for the charge, he served 22. After over two decades in prison, Rodriguez was released and became embroiled in a contraband distribution ring, sending items like synthetic cannabis to prisoners across the country.

In 2017, his actions landed him in federal prison, where he received a 33 year sentence. Rodriguez told High Times in March that he didn’t think he could get in trouble for an over-the-counter synthetic cannabis. He claimed never to have imagined that he “Would receive a 33-year sentence for something that the Bureau of Prisons gives prisoners 30 days confinement.”

Like the 1994 case, they feel the system has delivered him another harsh sentence, noting that other ring members have not faced the same consequences.

While fighting for his freedom, the now-50-year-old Rodriguez is housed at USP Lee in Virginia with a release date of May 4, 2046. At USP Lee, a high-security prison, Rodriguez has seen his health deteriorate due to the COVID-19 pandemic. All the while, his family lives states away in Florida, struggling with their own health matters. The family, which includes father Fernando, mother Gloria and his wife Yanina Cheij, hopes they can reunite before anyone’s health worsens.

Hard To Say Goodbye

Growing up in the Miami area, Rodriguez had his run-ins with the law. By 1994, Danny Rodriguez’s criminal record prevented him from possessing a firearm. That year, he’d be arrested and charged on four counts, including two counts of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Initially charged by the state, federal authorities picked up the case three years later.

Ultimately, he’d be found guilty of the two felon in possession of a firearm charges. Deputy clerks cited the armed career criminal act as grounds to enhance the sentence from 10 years to 22. His legal team contested that his three years in the state system should count for time served, but that did not happen.

Years of court petitions seeking the acquittal or reset of the sentence ensued. In 2016, Rodriguez’s legal team would win out. Citing the 2015 Johnson v. United States decision, which, in part, contested the vaugeness of criminal statutes, Rodriguez’s 272 month sentence was amended to 120 months with the three years of state time served counting. In 2016, Rodriguez was released after over-serving the sentence by 12 years.

Post-release he opened a cleaning service in the Miami area. Still, Rodriguez said he felt indebted to his fellow inmates, who he’d formed a community with over two decades in prison. That feeling led him to working in a contraband distribution ring, during his supervised release, sending synthetic cannabis and other items to inmates. Rodriguez claims he never made money from the endeavor.

Likening fellow inmates to war buddies, Rodriguez said, “It’s very difficult to serve 20 years in prison, create a bond … and then just go home and say that part of my life never existed.”

The group planned to use sheets of paper soaked in synthetic THC, but authorities thwarted the operation before reaching any prisoners. Higher-ups in the organization were alleged to have provided evidence to the Feds in exchange for a lesser sentence. Rodriguez and his lawyers thought they could fight the case, believing synthetic cannabis did not fall under The Federal Analogue Act. But, instead of fighting the case, Rodriguez claims his legal team compelled him into pleading guilty with the belief he’d come home rather than go to prison. Ultimately, he was sentenced to 33 years in federal prison for synthetic cannabis and money laundering.

Danny’s father Fernando, courtesy of the Rodriguez family

A Family Fights For Freedom Again

Rodriguez’s family and advocates have rallied around him, calling for his release once again.

Efforts included a letter to then-President Trump written by Rodriguez’s mom. In the letter, she implored Trump to consider the disparity of the sentence, with Rodriguez receiving several decades while co-conspirators received probation.

“For God’s sake, pedophiles, criminal-illegals, rapists, murderers, even terrorists are given far lesser sentences for truly egregious crimes,” she wrote.

Efforts attracted the attention of prison rights advocate and former non-violent cannabis prisoner Weldon Angelos. Since gaining his release in May 2016 for non-violent cannabis charges, Angelos has fought for individuals like Rodriguez. The passion of Danny’s advocates and family resonated with Angelos, who started seeing social media posts about the case in 2021.

“I started looking into this, like ‘What’s this 33-year sentence for fake weed,’” Angelos recalled.

His organization, The Weldon Project, took up Rodriguez’s case as part of its Mission Green initiative, aimed at releasing prisoners and creating pathways for record expungements and pardons. He agrees that a sentencing disparity has occurred.

“Even if the co-defendants cooperated, the sentence disparity cannot be that large, especially when considering they were bigger players,” said Angelos.

As the fight for Rodriguez’s freedom rages on once again, the family must contend with their various health issues. The pandemic took a toll on Danny, with him moved twice in March 2021 to an outside medical facility for treatment. At the same time, Gloria’s health has put her in and out of emergency care in recent months. Fernando advocates for his son’s release while tending to his wife’s bedside.

While incarcerated, Angelos had his father pass away. He likened the experience to the Rodriguez family, citing concern for Fernando’s tenacious dedication.

“I talk to his dad frequently, and he does nothing but work on his son’s case,” reported Angelos. Rodriguez hopes to be moved to a lower-security prison closer to Florida in the coming months.

Angelos said the family and his organization are putting forth a package for President Biden to advocate for Rodriguez’s case and others like him. In the meantime, the public can take action by signing up for Rodriguez’s Change.org petition calling for his early release.

Angelos implores lawmakers and others to look beyond the case. “No one’s claiming Danny is a candy striper,” he said, adding, “We’re saying the sentence is so out of whack,” considering his current and past legal circumstances.

Awaiting any new developments in his case, Rodriguez finds himself with many thoughts, ranging from his family’s health to the idea of equal justice. One prevailing belief is that equal justice for all is a lost ideal.

“Equal justice evades our justice system,” said Rodriguez.

The post Most Affected: Danny Rodriguez, Two-Time Victim of the Justice System appeared first on High Times.

Most Affected: Dan Muessig, Sentenced Five to 80 Years

By the time you read this, Dan Muessig will have been sentenced to between five to 80 years in federal prison. 

Sentenced on March 8, 2022, Muessig faces an uncertain length of time in one of the U.S. federal prisons across the country. He finds himself in the predicament over two charges: conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute cannabis. The Feds allege that he and his group moved between 220 and 880 pounds of pot in the Pittsburgh area. 

An Early Introduction to Legacy Cannabis

Muessig doesn’t deny his involvement in the Orange Box Crew, whose motto was “No Grows Just Bows.” He acknowledges having a history with pot dating back to his early days growing up in the Jewish, urban enclave of Squirrel Hill. Likening his upbringing to the movies Kids meets Goodfellas, Muessig said his youth and early adult life was filled with friends skateboarding and tagging, battle rapping and getting involved in pot. He went to the same high school that produced Mac Miller and Wiz Khalifa just a few years later, Taylor Allderdice High School. 

He had been exposed to pot long before high school. “I grew up in nothing but people smoking weed, selling weed,” he told High Times six days before his sentencing. “There was always large-scale, organized cannabis trafficking in Squirrel Hill,” he said, adding that it was common to see pot sales going on. Eventually, he got asked to run favors for local legacy operators in Pittsburgh and, later on, in college at Temple University in Philadelphia.

He said, “Instead of being asked, ‘Hey kid, wash my car,’ it was, ‘Hey kid, run to the store and grab me some blunts.’” In time, Muessig and his crew would form what he described as a “legacy trap.” At the same time, his battle rap career was taking off. Known as Dos-Noun, Muessig traveled the world with his music while pot sales grew at home, so much so that he became a prominent name in the area’s underground scene, moving substantial amounts of pot. 

Along the way, he began to see the hardships of the legacy (i.e. illicit) market, witnessing people being indicted for their involvement as he further immersed himself. Post-undergrad, with music no longer sustaining him, he entered law school. In time, he passed the bar and had clearance to defend against drug charges and other crimes, including murder, burglary, and assault, calling laws arbitrary. 

“The weirdest thing I ever did was go to law school,” he said of his life experiences. 

In 2013, Muessig’s video advertisement went viral. The polarizing clip showed Muessig getting folks off for an array of crimes, ranging from pot to sex work to robbery. The hook that caught most was Muessig admitting, “I may have a law degree, but I think like a criminal.”  

Courtesy of Dan Muessig

The Walls Come Crumbling In

In 2019, with his practice in the rearview and trap booming, the walls came crumbling in. A raid on the house led to two years of uncertainty until Muessig was charged. Unwilling to provide information against anyone in the operation, he was found guilty. Now facing a mandatory minimum of five years in federal prison, Muessig could spend up to 80 years in prison for a nonviolent cannabis charge.

Muessig recalled what he thinks led to him and his group being involved in a federal investigation. He said that the group did their best to not draw attention to themselves or escalate into violence, adhering to a “no hard drugs” and “non-violence except in unquestionable cases of self-defense” policies over the years. While moving substantial weight, they believed that they could fly under the radar. 

Unconfirmed but confident, he believes the crew’s prospects changed as the surrounding area began to gentrify. He stated that the decision to ramp up arrests stemed from gentrification efforts, with arrests leading to families moving out of their communities once the bread winner was in prison. Muessig believes that those efforts focused on a massive drug operation based in nearby Braddock, PA, home to current state lieutenant governor and cannabis legalization proponent John Fetterman. He thinks Feds began to target the Orange Box Crew after a member of the Braddock-area group bought pot from Muessig’s operation via an intermediary. 

Muessig and his wife, Laura, had seen enough friends in the game go down, be it prison or murder. Laura, who met Dan on MySpace in 2003 and regularly attended legalization rallies in her free time, insisted Dan get out before it was too late. The couple had long-settled into a quiet life of foreign films and teetotaling, pot excluded. They were in the final stages of adopting a baby from South Korea by the summer of 2021.

But by 2019, after years of assembling the operation, Muessig didn’t want to let go of something he loved. That decision would lead to his indictment and their adoption hopes shuttered.

“I told my mom that she was going to be a grandmother again,” he said, adding that informing her those plans had changed was one of the hardest experiences so far. 

Muessig said he should’ve listened to the one he loved most, Laura. “I loved her more, but I should’ve listened to her more because she told me to pack it up,” he said. 

On May 24, 2019, the trap was raided, with 404 pounds seized. Muessig caught wind early and decided to get home after warning others. They remained at the house, opting to try and ride out the heat, but it did not work. When he got home to Laura, he told her what happened and they talked about the next steps, which involved bailing out crew members and planning for his own arrest. Once he told her the news, Muessig said he watched Laura die inside.

The family waited over two years to see if Muessig would eventually be charged. On August 23, 2021, he was indicted. All the while, he said Feds wanted him to flip, provide evidence, and likely receive a lesser sentence. That didn’t happen. Instead, Muessig pleaded guilty in November 2021. 

“The way that they came at me… I just refused,” he said. Now facing a possible decades-long sentence, he said prosecutors shouldn’t have indicted him and imposed a mandatory minimum sentence as a ploy for his compliance. 

Last Days of Freedom

Muessig admits he did the crime and should do some time, but the destruction of his family and possible length of the sentence do not fit the bill. He believes that additional factors, including his viral video and unwillingness to become a witness, are sealing his fate.

“I’m about to get sentenced to, at best, the five-year mandatory minimum,” he said, adding that pedophiles, murderers, and terrorists have received lesser sentences.

As the days count down, Muessig said he and his family haven’t done much. “We don’t do much because there’s no pleasure in doing anything,” he said.

Muessig
Courtesy of Dan Muessig

A Plea to President Biden

Once sentenced, Muessig won’t have the traditional appeal options due to his admission of guilt. Instead, he has to hope for President Joe Biden to take executive action of some kind. While waiting, he’s garnered the support of cannabis prisoner advocacy ventures including Freedom Grow, 40 Tons, and the Last Prisoner Project.

Muessig hopes to see more progressives hold the president to his commitment to take action on federal cannabis arrests and the more than 2,000 individuals in the federal system today. While waiting on any possible action, he implores supporters to learn and follow more about him on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, where he will post via a proxy while sentenced. 

Though he hopes to gain exposure for his own case, Muessig closed the interview emphasizing the scores of other cannabis offenders still in or affected by drug sentences. Calling for the freedom of individuals like Bobby Cappelli, Luke Scarmazzo, Parker Coleman, John Wall and Mohammed Taher, he commends those that stood up to Feds and didn’t waver when offered lesser sentences in exchange for the lives of others or discrediting cannabis. 

Saying the cause goes beyond those that receive publicity, like himself, Muessig stated “It’s about every other person that had to face this alone.”

The post Most Affected: Dan Muessig, Sentenced Five to 80 Years appeared first on High Times.

Most Affected: Humberto Ramirez, Isolated in Prison for Pot

On November 17, 2020, two weeks after New Jersey citizens voted to legalize adult-use cannabis, Humberto “Berto” Ramirez was sentenced to a mandatory two years in state prison, with a possible maximum of seven years. On February 19, 2019, the then-43-year-old Ramirez, who often goes by “Bert,” was arrested on second-degree drug charges in Middle Township, New Jersey. Police found six pounds of cannabis in his Dodge Charger’s trunk. 

For Ramirez, the arrest marked his third cannabis sentence over his lifetime, meaning he’d be obligated to serve a longer sentence despite an otherwise spotless record for roughly 25 years. The ruling has put a strain on all involved, with Ramirez’s health a concern since entering prison. All the while, he and his wife, Brooke Popplewell, fight to ensure their daughter doesn’t experience too drastic of a change in her everyday life. Despite their best efforts, his absence is unavoidable. 

Popplewell told High Times that Ramirez is “an exceptional spouse” who takes great responsibility to his family, career, or community.

“I owed my nursing career to him,” she said, noting that Ramirez was the sole father driving their daughter, Lilyanna, and the other girls to dance practice and recitals until she earned her degree in 2014. 

Overall, they say they lived a quiet life and enjoyed it. The most excitement typically came during the annual family trip to Florida. Ramirez worked two jobs, construction and driving trucks for a local furniture company. Popplewell said her husband never called off of work or missed any of their daughter’s recitals. Over time, the family bought a home in Del Haven, just 10 minutes from where the arrest would occur.

At the same time, she reported that he’s gone into six-figures worth of student loan debts, ensuring that his two oldest daughters from a previous relationship don’t start life with immense financial burdens. 

Cannabis provided Ramirez therapeutic relief after long days of work. Popplewell said she didn’t participate but supported her husband consuming in his “man cave” or outside in the shed. He’d buy in larger quantities, picking up several pounds to satisfy himself while giving some to family and friends in need. He also sold undisclosed amounts to offset the costs but never netted revenue. Often, especially regarding Brooke’s grandparents, who used cannabis to treat their chemotherapy effects, Bert would give them pot for free. 

“I’m not gonna charge them,” said Ramirez, adding that they needed the medication.  

Courtesy of  Brooke Popplewell

Six Pounds of Pot

The arrangement had been going well for years until that day in February 2019. A first-time charge likely would have seen Ramirez ending up with a lighter sentence. He may even have gotten pre-trial intervention, a program for first-time offenders in New Jersey that can lead to charges being dismissed if the accused completes the stated conditions. 

That wasn’t the case for Bert, who had two prior nonviolent cannabis convictions from 18 and 20 years old. Despite nearly 25 years of staying out of trouble, his past indiscretions would result in a minimum of two years in jail with the possibility of maximum confinement until December 3, 2025. 

The sentencing came just days after New Jersey legalized adult-use cannabis. Ramirez felt like the sentence was a “slap in the face” in light of the developments in the state. 

“Six pounds of marijuana,” Ramirez said, puzzled to be in prison without committing a violent act or having a weapon. 

Before the arrest, Ramirez didn’t think he’d ever get busted for pot again. “It was just weed. I wasn’t selling pounds and pounds,” he said. When he was arrested, the family thought he’d have to pay some fines and attend drug court, at most. 

Popplewell believes the town’s low drug arrest activity caused Bert’s case to pique prosecutors’ interest seeking to boost their public image. 

“When they’re able to crucify somebody, they absolutely do so,” she said. 

A 2020 annual report from the Middle Township Police Department reported that its Street Crimes Unit Officers made eight arrests in 2020, totaling $925 seized from the sale of various substances, including cannabis and synthetic pot. The report notes that officers were not in full force for the entire year due to the pandemic. 

Humberto Ramirez
Bert’s daughters, courtesy of Brooke Popplewell

The Vicious Cycle of Prison Pain

In a letter seeking his early release, Popplewell said the family’s lives were shattered the day Ramirez was sentenced. However, the pain started well before that day. Awaiting sentencing during the pandemic led the family to be in a sort of limbo, unsure of when he’d have to face the courts. Often, they’d receive just 24 hours’ notice of when they had to appear. 

For two years, Popplewell said the family “lived on eggshells.” They recalled their daughter asking if tomorrow would be the last day her dad would be home.  

“You can’t plan anything because you don’t know if your life is going to change,” said Popplewell, barely holding back tears.

When he was sentenced, Ramirez, Popplewell, and their attorney were the only three in the Superior Court building. Due to the pandemic, all other parties attended via teleconference. 

The pain would intensify as Ramirez’s health diminished while in prison. During quarantine, he was found unconscious, resulting in regular headaches and dizzy spells. The family struggled on the outside as well. Popplewell’s grandparents had to go back to prescribed opioid-based medications for their cancer treatments. Meanwhile, Popplewell would be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She now takes daily medication, but in a cruel twist of fate, was recommended medical cannabis. 

“It’s a vicious cycle,” she said. 

The pandemic has created immense mental pain for Ramirez as well. He’s spent prolonged periods in isolation with little to his disposal. The family reports that protocols have left inmates isolated for 24 hours a day with only a bible to read at times. 

Humberto Ramirez
Courtesy of  Brooke Popplewell

Hope for Humberto

Ramirez continues to contend with COVID protocols and isolation. At the same time, his family and advocates persist with clemency appeals to New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy. 

Prominent cannabis prisoner advocates have stepped up as well. Support comes from groups like 40 Tons, a cannabis lifestyle line that includes a shirt for Ramirez. Others include the Last Prisoner Project (LPP). The advocacy group included Ramirez in their recent plea to the Governor to free New Jersey’s cannabis prisoners

Meanwhile, the family works with lawyers and local prosecutors to do away with his mandatory minimum sentence. They hope the public will join them in their fight for Ramirez’s early release by signing his Change.org petition and through other endeavors, like writing to Governor Murphy. 

All the while, the family waits for fall 2022, when Ramirez will be up for parole in November. After the past few years, he isn’t confident. 

“I think they’re going to keep coming up with something,” he said, followed by a sigh. 

The post Most Affected: Humberto Ramirez, Isolated in Prison for Pot appeared first on High Times.

Most Affected: Luke Scarmazzo, Legal Dispensary Owner

Luke Scarmazzo was a legal dispensary owner, but he still ended up in prison.

Today, the American public stands nearly in unison on medical cannabis legalization, with Pew reporting that 91 percent of Americans support reform. When introducing her federal legalization bill in November 2021, Congresswoman Nancy Mace called the issue one “a supermajority of Americans support.” 

That wasn’t the case when Luke Scarmazzo was arrested in 2006 and sentenced to 21.8 years in federal prison with a 20-year mandatory minimum. The public-at-large had not embraced medical pot like it does today. Nor had lawmakers made steps to protect state-legal ventures through directives like the 2013 Cole Memo. 

As such, Scarmazzo, a self-described God- and sports-loving young man from the blue-collar town of Modesto, California, found himself, along with friend and co-founder Ricardo Montes, as two of the most prominent examples of the ongoing War on Drugs. 

His crime? Co-owning a state-approved medical cannabis dispensary. 

Courtesy of Instagram: Luke Scarmazzo and Weldon Angelos

In September 2004, Scarmazzo and Montes legally opened California Healthcare Collective (CHC) in Modesto. The decision was born out of a lifetime of being taught about the plant’s healing potential. California’s Proposition 215 and local necessity cemented the decision. 

Scarmazzo reported that Modesto-area patients had to drive an hour and a half each way to the Bay Area to find “the nearest dispensary they could find to get the medication their doctor recommended.” With CHC, the co-owners hoped to provide a solution for the entire Central Valley, including Sacramento, the state capital.

CHC took off on its third day, thanks to a report from the Modesto Bee. “The next day, we came to work, the parking lot was full,” he recalled, estimating that 100 people were in line at the time of the store’s opening.  

The success continued for weeks afterward. Patient count and revenues were often on the rise for roughly two months. Then, a city regulation change barred new dispensaries from opening. A grandfather clause allowed CHC to stay open and now operate without any threat of future local competition. 

“Instead of getting rid of us, they ended up creating a monopoly,” Scarmazzo said.

The city inadvertently fueled the dispensary’s success. Instead of changing course, the surrounding towns did the same–further emboldening the dispensary and its owners. That’s when Scarmazzo said the city contacted federal agents, leading to an investigation of store activity, raids and the eventual arrest of the co-owners and six others in September 2006.

Two years after opening, CHC was shuttered. Scarmazzo was charged with 18 counts around conducting a criminal enterprise, conspiracy, manufacturing, distributing and possessing cannabis. 

Despite being protected in California, the co-owners “always knew we were taking a risk federally,” said Scarmazzo, adding, “Back then was a way different time than it is now.”

Only a few dispensaries dared open while federal government threats lingered overhead. Still, CHC felt that what they were doing was right and just. The thought process was formed on a costly incorrect assumption, with Scarmazzo believing that operating a legal dispensary would land them a few years in prison, at most. Shock set in when they found out that the charges for operating an enterprise carried a mandatory 20-year minimum sentence. 

“To hear those kinds of numbers, we couldn’t really fathom it,” he recalled. 

In court documents, the Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA) states that Scarmazzo was offered a 10-year sentence as part of a plea deal that would see the enterprise charge dropped, but they refused the deal. In a follow-up response via the federal prison email system CorrLinks, the co-founders couldn’t accept the law and its assertion that dispensing medical cannabis was wrong. They also believed it was possible to assemble a jury with at least half that voted for medical cannabis legalization. 

“Obviously this was another miscalculation but we made the decision we thought best at the time,” he said. 

More shock came during Scarmazzo’s trial. “We couldn’t say the words’ California law,’ ‘medical marijuana’—we couldn’t argue that cannabis has medical efficacy,” he stated. The next surprise came when prosecutors used his art against him. 

The AUSA submitted an August 2006 rap video made by Luke as evidence. Prosecution played the track in court, highlighting lyrics that touted Scarmazzo as a “businessman” and saying “Fuck the Feds.” Scarmazzo contends that he said “Fuck the Feds” concerning regulators’ refusal to reform cannabis laws, not regarding the operation of an illegal enterprise. 

In the end, Scarmazzo was found guilty and sentenced to 21.8 years in federal prison. Several rounds of appeals have been denied, including a petition for a new trial after two jurors filed verdict recantations with the U.S. District Court in Fresno. 

Scarmazzo
Courtesy of Instagram: Luke Scarmazzo and his daughter

Fighting for Freedom Continues

A 2014 Obama admin clemency initiative had Scarmazzo, then housed at a medium-security prison in Mendota, California, working with Weldon Angelos, a fellow inmate serving a 55-year mandatory minimum sentence for a nonviolent cannabis charge. Angelos had extensive experience with clemency petitions after his case garnered widespread support among advocates. 

The two began working on filings for themselves, Montes and any other inmates fitting the Obama administration’s criteria. Additional services included connecting inmates with lawyers and advocates. The effort became a clemency clinic. 

Angelos is now the president and co-founder of The Weldon Project, acting as a leading advocate for nonviolent drug offenses. He continues to fight for Scarmazzo’s compassionate release after his release in May 2016 after receiving a sentence reduction. 

“I figured Luke would beat me to the door,” said Angelos.  

He recalls the two walking the track during his final days in prison, laying out the next steps to ensure that Montes and Scarmazzo would follow him out the door soon enough. Angelos tapped into his influential network of celebrities and bipartisan politicians who helped him receive early release. 

The CHC founders had the support of influential politicians, Angelos stated. The momentum gained, but a choice by prosecutors altered the paths of Montes and Scarmazzo. Like Angelos, prosecutors opted to allow Montes’ petition to continue onward. With Scarmazzo, they fought back, with it believed that his rap video played a significant part in the decision. 

“It’s obviously the video,” Angelos stated as the rationale, adding that other reasons are out there, but none he’s heard have been justifiable. Whatever the case may be, Montes was released in January 2017. 

Pained for his own result but happy to see his friends released, Scarmazzo pushed on with petitions. He also got his story told in print and digital media, helping spread awareness for him and other offenders. Angelos was invited to the White House to meet with the Trump administration. He used his time to lobby for Scarmazzo’s release and those with similar nonviolent drug sentences. 

In January 2020, the final days of the Trump presidency saw renewed hope for Scarmazzo with a wave of influential figures including former Governor Gary Johsnon, hip-hop star Drake and NBA legend Kevin Garnett among the group signing onto Angelos’ Mission [Green] initiative. His Presidential clemency seemed confirmed on January 19, 2021, the day before Joe Biden would be sworn in as president. 

Officials told Luke and his family to prepare for his release and flight back to Modesto. The family bought a plane ticket and Luke had his bags packed. At the same time, Angelos was all but assured that Scarmazzo would be on the President’s final list of those granted executive clemency. As such, he moved to advocate for others to gain their freedom. Unfortunately, Angelos reports that pushback within the Department of Justice led Scarmazzo and dozens of others like him to be excluded from the final order. 

As the hours passed, Scarmazzo’s mind raced, unaware of the decision made in Washington, D.C. He thought of every possible reason why he was still in prison, citing every option from the pandemic to slow prison staff as the cause. Then, reality set in. 

“When I saw Biden getting inaugurated, I knew that it wasn’t going to happen,” he recalled. 

The result left Scarmazzo wondering how it happened. How did he get to the literal door before being rejected once again? In time, the pain turned to acceptance before turning into fuel. Hope remains in several forms. A compassionate release case has been in the works for years, citing changing legal circumstances around cannabis as the primary factor. 

“He couldn’t even be prosecuted today,” said Angelos, highlighting the protections legal shops now have from federal regulators. 

Scarmazzo
Courtesy of Instagram: Luke Scarmazzo in prison

Not Giving Up the Fight

Angelos and other compassionate release advocates continue to meet with the Biden administration in hopes of seeing sweeping reform. While waiting for more developments, Scarmazzo remains upbeat, finding the positive in his situation. 

“If me being in here helps some other guys get out, I’m with it,” he said, noting the importance of sharing his story and those like him. 

Scarmazzo added, “If I gotta fight a little bit longer, then I gotta fight a little bit longer.” 

Today, the 41-year-old Scarmazzo sits across the country from his family in Yazoo City, Mississippi, only seeing them once in a handful of years. Unless granted an early release, he will be out of prison in March 2027. He continues to speak with Montes and doesn’t try to overthink about post-prison life while inside. 

One thing is clear: Scarmazzo is committed to following in the path of people like Angelos and other nonviolent cannabis prisoners turned advocates. Determined to do the work until “every last one is out,” he urges the public to consider the people in prison. Describing victims of the drug war as everyday people, Scarmazzo said, “They’re your neighbors, they work at the mechanic shop, they’re the people you played sports with.”

He added, “These are regular American people that have to go through this.” 

At the same time, Angelos calls for additional support from the cannabis industry. He noted the similarities in the circumstances between themselves and Scarmazzo. 

“There should be more outrage about Luke’s case because these individuals, everybody, right now that’s in the cannabis industry, are openly violating federal law,” Angelos stated. 

Scarmazzo
Courtesy of Instagram: Luke Scarmazzo in prison

While advocating for more support, Angelos points towards recent comments from Press Secretary Jen Psaki on April 20, 2021, regarding nonviolent marijuana sentences, citing Scarmazzo’s case specifically. Psaki’s response included a reiteration of President Biden’s support for medical cannabis, decriminalization and automatic expungement.

The Press Secretary added, “It sounds like it’s applicable in this, or would have been applicable in this case,” adding that she couldn’t comment on individual matters. 

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Most Affected: Former State Employee Diana Marquez

In 1978, 18-year-old Diana Marquez and her family moved from Mexico to the U.S., settling in Nebraska. She could barely speak English, using films and TV shows to help teach her. Two years later, she met her eventual husband, Mario, before moving to El Paso, Texas in 1987. She had hoped to use the degree she earned while living in Mexico. However, forced to make ends meet, the duo took whatever jobs they could find, working as meat cutters at a processing plant.

“Not many people last long,” she said of the job, “But we had a necessity.” 

According to the Feds, Mario also turned to cannabis distribution, netting him a 13-year sentence on cannabis conspiracy charge in 1991. With three children, including an eight-month-old, at the time of the arrest, Marquez turned to the U.S. government. Through assistance programs, she obtained support for the children and her education. While her husband was in prison, Marquez earned her GED, then a degree in bookkeeping. She’d use the continued education to start a career as a Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission compliance officer in 2000.

“I was so proud of myself,” she recalled. 

Courtesy of Diana Marquez

Mario got back into pot sales when he returned from prison in December 2002. Marquez claims she was unaware of his dealings. Upon his release, the Feds deported Marquez-Ramos to Mexico, but he illegally crossed back into the U.S. sometime after. Once back, he worked on his family’s farm, along with his brother Hector, raising horses. The job took them to California for races, often coming home with substantial paydays. Marquez claims she asked to go but was always rebuffed and was never invited. 

She claims that Mario would say, “This is men’s business.” 

Marquez said her husband had similar approaches to life outside of the home, often leaving Diana behind when he went to clubs with friends. She didn’t appreciate the treatment but feared speaking up and ending her second marriage. She chalked his attitude up to a macho bravado.

“I wanted to have a stable marriage, so I never spoke up,” Marquez said. 

Feds allege that the horse farm was a hub for trafficking pot. The brothers and other members of the organization were also alleged to have conspired to commit the murder of a woman, Maria Elidia Liuzza, in Juarez, Mexico, in 2005. 

As the heat grew, Marquez became aware of the allegations from her colleagues. They also began to clue her in on potentially grave legal results for herself. Still, she remained confident after two subsequent searches of her house didn’t result in any charges.

“Why should it affect me? I haven’t done anything wrong,” Marquez remembered. 

That didn’t turn out to be the case the third time. In August 2005, the mother of three opened the door to have agents immediately place her under arrest. Marquez was not tried for violent activities. Instead, she was indicted for several nonviolent crimes, including conspiracy to import and distribute 1,000 kilograms or more of pot, money laundering and other illegal monetary transactions. 

Still, Marquez was not afraid of being found guilty. Steadfast in her innocence, she refused a deal that would see her admitting guilt to money laundering. Legal counsel warned her that an unwillingness to play ball with the Feds could result in the maximum sentence. Marquez thinks she further upset agents by demonstrating her tax regulation knowledge when questioned. Her confidence ran so high that she did what many defendants don’t do at their trial—testify on her behalf. 

It’s unclear what, if any, of Marquez’s choices impacted her verdict or sentence. Though, many subjects profiled in this series have indicated similar feelings about their cases and sentencing. What was clear was that she was ultimately sentenced to 30 years in federal prison. Once a source of immense pride, her state job and badge were replaced by a prison-issued uniform and ID number.

According to Marquez, the sting of the verdict was only part of the pain. “I learned so many things that my husband did while I was on trial,” she said. 

Painful learning lessons continued after sentencing. Now, the first-time offender had to understand and adjust to life inside prisons like FMC Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas. She was taught early on that speaking up could get you in trouble. So, she kept her head down, avoiding threats inside. Marquez also avoided falling into violence, drugs or other trappings of the prison system. 

While inside, her family life provided heartbreaking moments as well.

Diana Marquez
Courtesy of Diana Marquez

Hector was sentenced to life in prison, and is currently incarcerated. However, Mario is believed to have met a different fate. Instead of prison, he is believed to have made it to Mexico, where he was kidnapped in 2010. Marquez claims not to know if Mario is alive or dead today. Their 21-year-old son, Reydecel, also fled with Mario. With the father and son missing, their 29-year-old son, Esaul Guerrero, went to Mexico to find his brother. The outcome led to more tragedy. In 2012, the bodies of both of Diana’s sons were found in Mexico. 

“When I came back home, I found them in the cemetery,” she said. 

All the while, she longed to see her mother, now aged 92, with dementia. Diana’s remaining family equally missed her. Her daughter, Yesenia, told High Times that life without a mom led her to house hop as a minor. She also contended with mental health concerns. At one point, she was admitted to a mental health facility for treatment. 

“I felt robbed of my youth,” she said of life without her parents. 

Diana Marquez
Courtesy of Diana Marquez

Instead, she committed herself to a lifelong practice: continuing her education. She earned an office management apprenticeship. She was well-equipped to handle numerous prison office duties, including bookkeeping, banking, reconciliation and other tasks combined with her financial background. 

“The manager trusted me a lot,” she said. 

She also helped teach English as a Second Language despite not feeling like her English comprehension was up to the task.  

“They’re always relying on us to do the work,” she said of prison programs. 

Pain from prison and family life did not deter Marquez from giving up on getting home. Nor did rejected clemency pleas from former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Through it all, she pushed on. 

After 11 years with a spotless record, she was deemed a low-level prisoner and moved to Federal Prison Camp Bryan in Texas. She stayed at the camp until the COVID-19 pandemic and Marquez’s physical condition allowed her to return home in May 2020 as part of the CARES Act. Per her release terms, she kept an ankle bracelet on at all times while adhering to other requirements, including check-ins with a halfway house. 

In late December 2021, her ankle monitor was removed after receiving a compassionate release. Marquez reports that she is still adjusting to life without a regularly vibrating device on her ankle. Her movement is still limited to within a specific area of Texas. As of early January 2022, she was waiting for her driver’s license. Despite the remaining steps and the years to get here, the Marquez family calls Diana’s return a long overdue win. 

Marquez now hopes to advocate for the freedom of friends and family like advocates like CAN-DO Clemency did for her. “It’s an ongoing fight,” said Marquez. She added, “We’re the voices for them in this ongoing battle.” 

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Most Affected: Daniel Longoria, Joe Cavazos and Travis Longoria Fight for Their Freedom

This Most Affected installment looks at sentences of those incarcerated for cannabis, and this case deserves your special attention. 

Life was difficult for Daniel Longoria and Jose “Joe” Cavazos growing up in the small border town of Brownfield, Texas. The stepbrothers were two of six in a house supported by a mom and stepdad who struggled to make ends meet.

“We grew up very poor,” Daniel told High Times

Courtesy of Daniel Longoria

By 15, Daniel had developed a severe drug habit, including a meth addiction. Four years after being kicked out of home, he continued using until a near-fatal overdose at 19. After the grave scare, Daniel committed to changing his life. He contacted his mother, asking her to help him get clean.

“I went to her and told her that I wanted to change my life,” he recalled. Once on the path to sobriety, she paid for his auto school tuition.

Her investment in Daniel paid off. He earned his mechanic’s degree in Lubbock, about 45 miles north of Brownfield, hitching rides with friends to school for a year and a half until he earned his certification. He then headed to Fort Worth to further separate himself from his past. There, Daniel climbed the ranks, becoming a manager in Fort Worth and Abilene shops for over a decade. In 2001, he opened his own shop, Abilene Automotive and Performance. 

Around the same time, he started doing business with a cannabis dealer through a family connection. Daniel said he’d occasionally do five-pound deals, with orders eventually doubling in size. Despite having a thriving career, Daniel thought of his family back home. He figured the pot sales would help support them as they had helped him in the past. 

“Cannabis was not for me,” he said. “It was to help out my mother who was struggling,” he said. 

In 2008, he was arrested and sentenced to 10 years of probation the following year. In 2014, Daniel was arrested by federal agents once again. The charge was for one count of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute 100 kilograms or more of cannabis. Feds allege Daniel had overseen an operation that smuggled cannabis inside car stereos. Cavazos, Daniel’s then-20-year-old son Travis and three others were eventually found guilty in the scheme. 

Most Affected
Courtesy of Travis Longoria

“A Cycle that Ain’t Been Broken”

Cavazos was apprehended at his nearby auto shop. The ordeal left him floored. He pushed back against his alleged involvement in drugs or illegal activity. He did the same for Daniel, swearing that his stepbrother had spent the past few years turning his life around. Rather than dealing drugs, he said the two were regular Sunday church-goers who put on occasional fundraisers for the local elderly community. 

In custody at the federal courthouse, Cavazos alleges that Feds said they wanted him to testify against Daniel. Cavazos refused to provide a statement against his stepbrother, swearing that both men were tax-paying business owners and nothing else. 

He said he told Feds, “You’re asking me to testify against somebody that I know for a fact is not doing anything.” 

Daniel and Cavazos claim they had no involvement in the operation. However, Travis was involved for similar reasons as his dad once had. Travis already had a child with his high school sweetheart. By 17, he was working at Daniel’s shop as a mechanic, supporting the family while his girlfriend took care of their daughter and home. Travis, who lived with two different stepmoms and his grandmother while his mom was in and out of prison, didn’t want to see his home fall apart. He turned to illegal drug sales to make more money.

“I guess it’s a cycle that ain’t been broken,” he said. 

Daniel claims that issues at home with his now-ex-wife led to her revealing details to the Feds about his past illicit dealings. With the Feds tracking him and his workers, he said he told his son to cut out any pot activity. 

“You need to stop because if you don’t, they’re gonna use you to put me in prison,” Daniel recalled telling Travis.

But, Travis didn’t listen. “He turned his life over to God, and that’s when I started doing my thing,” Travis said. When he was arrested, Travis’ girlfriend was just a few weeks away from giving birth to their second child. 

The three went to trial and were all ultimately found guilty. Cavazos, a first-time offender, received nine years, while Travis received 10. Daniel, alleged to be the head of the ring, received 30 years. 

Daniel, now 56, is currently jailed at FCI El Reno in Oklahoma with a 2040 scheduled release date. Travis, now 29, is at FCI Beaumont Medium prison in Texas. Cavazos, now 58, spent most of his sentence in a Texas prison. Since May 2020, he has been in home confinement with a monitoring device due to the pandemic and the passage of the CARES Act that released select non-violent offenders. 

“I am on home confinement, but I want to be released from this ankle monitor and given clemency,” Cavazos said via email.

The sentences continue to be a sticking point for the men. Their frustrations center on the legal process, including a lack of transparency and an information gap defendants often encounter. They allege that evidence proves that Feds, including Assistant U.S. Attorney Juanita Fielden, built the case upon paid testimonies and improper practices. Cavazos said he has a CD of evidence he hopes to use to clear their records one day when Longoria is free and they can afford legal representation.  

He states that the disc contains conversations Cavazos had with police as well as statements from witnesses in exchange for their immunity. 

“This ain’t over yet,” said Cavazos of the legal fight.

Courtesy of Daniel Longoria, Joe Cavazos and Travis Longoria
Courtesy of Joe Cavazos

Hoping for an Early Return to Their Families

Since inside, each man has done their part to turn their lives around. By 2016, all three had completed drug education courses. Cavazos also took classes on parenting and landscaping. Travis earned his GED in 2014 and has completed several OHSA safety courses. Daniel, too, earned his GED while also working on anger management, spiritual growth and art. He has maintained an outstanding record the past seven years. 

Each hopes that their efforts and nonviolent offenses will earn them their permanent returns home soon. The Longorias both continue to wait out the end of their sentences. Travis reportedly does his best to avoid the lure of gang life that often sucks in inmates. Meanwhile, Daniel continues to be part of his family’s life, but the sentence has affected them all.

“When they put me in prison, they put the family in,” said Daniel. 

The effects have been most noticeable on his two youngest children, with his 15-year-old daughter Lexy attempting to take her own life in 2017. Meanwhile, he and his youngest son have a strained relationship as the nearly teenage boy goes through emotional bouts related to growing up without a father. Hurt but empathetic, Daniel said he does his best to show his son that he didn’t do anything violent and that the plant that put him in jail is now considered medicine to millions. 

At the same time, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the family, leading to the death of his sister and step-father. Daniel also became infected with the virus, reporting that he still experiences shortness of breath. Despite it all, Longoria relies on his faith and tries to remain positive. 

As 2021 came to a close, the three remained uncertain of their next steps. Cavazos hopes to serve the rest of his sentence at home with his family. Meanwhile, the Longorias hope to see their sentences reduced or cleared so they can come home to their families. Daniel is excited to get back to supporting the family and being a thriving member of the community. He said that an uncle is ready to turn the keys to his two-decade-old body repair shop over to Daniel so that he can retire. Until then, the entire family, including Daniel and Cavazos’ mom, works at the shop.

Daniel said his uncle told him, “I need you to hurry up and get out because I need you to take over the shop.” Daniel said he plans to expand the shop to provide his auto mechanic expertise once he’s released. 

Join us in advocating for these three men by signing the following petitions: DanielTravis and Joe.

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Most Affected: Edwin Rubis Looks for a Second Chance

For more than two decades, Edwin Rubis has done all he can think of to demonstrate that he is a changed man. He tells High Times that drug and alcohol addiction pulled him into the illicit cannabis business, which he only entered to settle debts. Federal agents argue otherwise, convicting the long-time Texas native of leading a drug enterprise. Because he fought the charges, a decision he claims not to have fully understood at the time, Rubis is now just a little over halfway through a 40-year sentence. The now-53-year-old’s release date is set for August 2032. 

However, he and advocates continue to push for an early release, hoping that his exemplary record and prison community service show he has genuinely been rehabilitated. Rubis is pained to see that he and others remain incarcerated for the plant many are financially profiting from. He mentions Former Republican House Speaker John Boehner specifically. 

Addiction Leads to Desperation and then Federal Prison

Rubis’ struggles with alcohol and drug addiction began when he was 21. Several stints in rehab didn’t stick. By 1995, he had a wife and three sons and worked as a mechanic and car salesman in the Houston area. However, addiction continued to burden him. Debts to drug dealers mounted. “They threatened my family; they threatened me,” he claimed. 

“I needed to pay this money back,” he said. 

To settle his debts, he began transporting cannabis from the border to Houston for the dealers. He claims to have ceased all work in 1996 as soon as the debt was settled. A year-and-a-half later, Rubis was arrested by DEA agents in 1998 at the age of 29. 

After his arrest, Rubis asked agents why he was arrested. They reportedly said his name had been given to agents by another person caught in the sting. During the arrest and subsequent search, Rubis said that agents found no drugs, money or guns in his family’s apartment or other possessions. Instead, he claimed a conspiracy was built against him by agents and those in the operation who ultimately received lesser sentences for corroborating the story. 

Unable to afford a lawyer, Rubis had one appointed on his behalf. His counsel advised him to play ball like the others arrested and turn over any information to the Feds. He said he didn’t have any information to give up. 

Ultimately, the Feds offered no plea deal. “I tried to plead guilty because it was the obvious thing to do,” claimed Rubis. However, that feeling changed when he wasn’t allowed to plead out like the others. He felt compelled to now fight the charges in court, believing that he could prove his innocence based on a lack of physical evidence. 

Rubis went to trial. The decision proved costly, resulting in his 40-year sentence. 

“I learned the hard way,” he said, adding, “They gave me 40 years based on the testimony of others.” He said he would never have gone to trial had he known the typical outcome for anyone fighting against federal charges. In 2019, the Pew Research Center reported that just two percent of 2018’s 80,000 federal cases went to trial, with 97 percent of federal convictions made via plea deals. 

Courtesy of Edwin Rubis

Prison’s Dark Days Almost Become Too Much

Prison has been brutal for the Rubis family. Addiction landed Edwin in prison once before for car burglary. This time around, the experience was much more jarring. 

“I had been in state prison, but I had never been in one of the most violent prisons in the United States,” said Rubis. 

That place was USP Beaumont, otherwise known as Bloody Beaumont, one of the most notoriously violent institutions in the system. Those first two-and-a-half years were trying for Rubis in a way he hadn’t experienced before. “I couldn’t fathom the thought of serving 40 years in prison, especially for marijuana,” he stated. 

His mental health deteriorated further when thinking about the financial and personal struggles his family would contend with. “Being in prison, unable to help them, brought me to extreme depression,” said Rubis. Making matters worse, his appeals were all rejected. Despondent, he attempted to take his own life.

“It’s hard for me to remember,” said Rubis, barely holding back tears during a phone call. 

He credits his Christian faith for keeping him in better spirits through the years. With a new perspective, he began to improve himself and others around him. 

Faith and Education Fuel Rubis and Those Around Him

Rubis experienced a “face the music” moment, deciding to accept his fate in prison.

“I felt like my life needed to change,” claimed Rubis. The change relied on religion, education and rehabilitation. Over the years, Rubis would enroll in “any rehabilitation program they had to offer,” including Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. He’s taken courses on anger management and completed a two-year dental apprentice program. He also serves as a mentor to other prisoners at his current residence, FCI Talladega in Alabama. Rubis is also heavily involved in the prison’s chapel and programs, including operating his prison ministry. Through the efforts, he hopes to help others turn their lives around as he has. 

Rubis’ 180-degree life change earned him the endorsements of prison staff and administrators who have written letters on his behalf. Despite his efforts and the support of prison officials and advocacy groups like Freedom Grow and The Last Prisoner Project, he remains locked away. 

Support also comes from everyday individuals like Carter Wynn, who remembered seeing a change.org petition for Rubis in 2012. After signing the petition for his release, Wynn noticed Rubis’ contact info on the page. He contacted Rubis, and the two sparked a bond, leading to Wynn advocating for Rubis’ release.

Wynn wrote letters to judges seeking Rubis’ compassionate release, offering to provide him a job when let out. He also provided High Times with a 2020 letter from prison staff, noting Rubis demeanor and disposition made him capable of working with “a very demanding staff member,” as one supervisor described. Others noted Rubis’ near-immediate commitment to education once arriving at Talladega in August 2008. “The amount of positive programs he has completed exceeds that of the average inmate,” wrote Unit Manager J.A. Gilman in September 2020. 

Still, Rubis has not been granted his freedom for a nonviolent cannabis offense. 

With roughly 12 years left, he admits that it can be frustrating seeing inmates like himself denied their release. He believes he’s done everything to prove he’s changed. Today, Rubis continues to contact advocacy groups and the Biden administration, seeking an early end to the sentence. A change.org petition and GoFundMe has been established for him.

While waiting for a possible reprieve, Rubis hopes change can come for more than himself. In the final minutes of our call, he emphasized the need for nonviolent, radical action to address harsh sentencing against nonviolent cannabis offenders. While crediting the efforts of advocacy groups, Rubis hopes to see more people join in the fight so that harsh drug sentencing and policing can one day come to an end. Once free, he hopes to participate in the battle for drug and prison reform. 

On September 16, 2020, Rubis filed a compassionate release motion with Judge David Hittner of the Southern District of Texas. The motion was denied within 24 hours. Rubis said it did not address any of the issues asking for his release. Rubis has appealed. A year later, on August 13 2021, the Fifth Circuit Court Appeals sent the case back to Judge Hittner, instructing him to fully explain the reasons for the denial. 

On August 17, 2021, Judge Hittner again denied the compassionate release motion, in the same manner he had done before. The motion is back on appeal again, with Rubis now waiting for a decision from the Fifth Circuit.

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Most Affected: Seven Years After Leaving The Game, Community Leader Anthony Alegrete Gets Snagged

Authorities will get you, even if you’ve been out of the game for years. That was the case of Anthony Alegrete, who served 24 months in federal prison and an additional 24 months of house arrest for his involvement in a cannabis operation. The bust ensnared scores of other individuals, including Evelyn LaChappelle and Anthony’s good friend Corvain Cooper. The latter would be sentenced to life on a third-strike drug charge.

Old charges coming back hurt that much more for Alegrete and his wife, Loriel. Anthony was in college. The two had built a successful local charitable endeavor in the Las Vegas area. Making matters worse, their third child, and first daughter, was on the way. 

Once out, Alegrete was determined to not only rebuild his own life but get Corvain home so that the two could further give back to the community.

Years Removed With A New Life, The Feds Come Calling

Alegrete and Cooper have been friends for nearly 30 years. Meeting at Hollywood High School in Los Angeles in 1994, the two had a tight bond. But by 2005, they began amicably heading in different directions as their careers blossomed post-cannabis sales. By 2008, the two hadn’t interacted much for years, with Cooper owning a fashion store, while Alegrete moved to Las Vegas and enrolled at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Photo Credit: Emily Eizen

Like Cooper, the Alegretes also focused on community efforts. They created a charitable program for the city aimed at combating childhood obesity, Jump For Joy.

“After getting in trouble so much in my younger years and moving to Vegas, I gave myself a life sentence to community service,” he stated.

Within months, the program boasted hundreds of campers. Two years later, it boasted three to 4,000 attendees. The program would work with schools and organizations like the YMCA and Boys & Girls Club of America. With school and the program thriving, Alegrete found his path, dedicating his skills to community service.

Then, his past came back in the form of federal agents.

Charges Emerge Seven Years Later

Seven years removed from any illicit cannabis activity, Alegrete was stunned to see he was in the crosshairs of the law once again. In previous experiences, he had been convicted on operation-related charges. In one instance, he was sentenced for giving an ID to someone caught selling cannabis. Another charge stemmed from handling cannabis funds. He thought he had paid for his crimes. 

Alegrete wasn’t facing a mandatory life sentence for a third-strike offense like Cooper, whose three charges stemmed directly from drug charges. Not facing a mandatory life sentence, coupled with his ongoing schooling and community service, allowed Alegrete to earn a softer punishment than what he might have been given. He credits the outpouring of support he received from the community.

He recalled a procedural hearing, typically taking 15 minutes, became a “four-hour miniature trial about my character and the man I’d become post-crime.” He added, “I had people fly out. I had doctors and Ph.D. professors… fly out to speak about my character because I had been such a changed individual.” In the end, he said prosecutors portrayed him as a villain.

The courts would delay his sentencing for two years so he could finish college. Instead of taking the next steps in his career after graduating, the Outstanding Student Graduate award winner would serve two years in prison.

Anthony Alegrete
Photo Credit: Emily Eizen

Prison certainly tested both Anthony and Loriel. He would do his best to continue educating himself, reading frequently. Some favorites included Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom and all of Malcolm Gladwell’s works. The book to make the most impact was Gregory David Robert’s 2003 novel Shantaram, the story of an escaped Australian convict who lives in the slums of India where he provides free healthcare to the community while also continuing in illicit operations like the mafia.

While Anthony waited for freedom, Loriel served as the sole provider for herself and their three children. She was experienced in such a predicament. At 13, she provided a similar role to her family when her brother was arrested and tried.

While challenging, the two remained together. “She really stayed down, man,” Anthony said of Loriel, calling her a beautiful woman. “It’s my duty, no matter what, even if we broke up, to always make sure that she’s taken care of,” he said.

On May 14, 2015, Anthony received his release from prison.

A Return To Giving Back To The Community

Alegrete spent the next two years rebuilding what he lost. That included reestablishing his reputation, career and finances. Post-prison, he didn’t want to become a grunt. He wanted to thrive once again. He first landed a position with a logistics company, where he received equity while handling 1,500 deliveries every day. “I learned the logistics business, then I was slowly getting back into the entrepreneurial spirits,” he recalled.

The shared legal experience with Cooper reinvigorated their friendship. Once released, Alegrete would have regular calls with Cooper while he served his life sentence. The two talked like old friends while also thinking about how Cooper could earn his release. Those conversations eventually led to forming a social impact brand aimed at advocating for people like them in the system. The endeavor would also strive to ensure that kids don’t follow their path. They eventually settled on 40 Tons as a name, recognizing the amount of cannabis authorities allege Cooper had trafficked.

“We learned our lesson,” said Alegrete. “We wanna stop the next Corvain Cooper from going down that path,” he said. While educating kids, the endeavor also aims to provide support for prisoners through financial donations, scholarships, career fairs and other means of support.

Cooper had begun to garner significant support from various advocates and cannabis prisoner rights groups by this time. After he connected the groups to Alegrete, a unified effort began to take shape.

The Alegretes would launch 40 Tons to ensure Cooper would not harm his current standing by associating with a cannabis operation. Part of the company’s commitment to criminal justice is its line of shirts featuring past and current prisoners, including Cooper. All of the proceeds from the sales of prisoner-centric shirts go directly towards the featured prisoner.

On January 20, 2021, Cooper received clemency from then-President Trump. Upon his return, Cooper joined 40 Tons as an advocate and brand ambassador. Cooper does not have any involvement in the company’s cannabis or accessories line, per his sentencing conditions. He focuses on advocacy and the company’s clothing options.

40 Tons is now starting to become profitable. At the same time, the Alegretes continue to advocate for the release of nonviolent cannabis offenders. A primary focus is stopping recidivism, prisoners reoffending post-release. An upcoming career fair aims to help with resumes, obtain a career in the field, while also assisting offenders obtain their record expungement. The Alegretes hope their efforts are just one of many that help provides more resources to prisoners and families affected by the prison system.

Today, Alegrete considers himself “The type of citizen that our government would want.” He calls himself a contributor, noting his investments in the community while abiding by the laws as a tax-paying citizen.

“I had to go through the fire to come out the other side,” he said.

The post Most Affected: Seven Years After Leaving The Game, Community Leader Anthony Alegrete Gets Snagged appeared first on High Times.

Most Affected: Jonathan Wall Will Serve Nearly Two Years Before His First Day in Court For Cannabis

Jonathan Wall is a living reminder that the War on Drugs continues to snare new individuals in the system with its severe mandatory minimum sentences.

The 26-year-old Maryland native faces a mandatory minimum 10-year sentence over a federal distribution conspiracy charge, with the Feds alleging that Wall was part of an operation running cannabis from Humboldt County, where he lived at the time, to his native Maryland. If he goes to trial and loses, he could face up to life with his conspiracy charge of distributing over 1,000 kilograms of cannabis.

Wall, a first-time offender, is alleged to be the mastermind of the operation between Northern California, including Humboldt County, to his native Maryland. The Fed’s crackdown occurred in April 2019, with Wall in custody since July 2020. His first trial date is nearly a year away in May 2022.

While he waits, the aspiring mainstream cannabis operator attempts to maintain his composure while interned in Baltimore’s Chesapeake Detention Facility, a facility with a penchant for violence and corruption involving inmates and guards. The matters were only made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Courtesy Mitzi Wall

An Unconventional Route Leads To Early Cannabis Realizations for Jonathan Wall

Wall was born in Maryland and raised by his parents. He said they got along fine after adolescence, but had been contentious previously. Wall claimed to have had a bit of an issue with authority, stating that he “saw through the bullshit of society early on.” Happiness for Wall didn’t involve material goods like much of the world around him. Stating that he wanted to push his boundaries to find a sense of wholeness, he pursued an unconventional route.

That route included running away several times as a youth. He recalled the first time he smoked pot while on the run from home, joining a group of migrant crabbing industry workers in the back of their work van. He said everything changed from there. “Cannabis being introduced into my life allowed me to elevate my sense of consciousness and kind of see things in a different light.” Claiming to now see things differently, he said he “saw through the veil of the mundane, everyday reality, and witnessed the human experience as it truly is from a new and fresh perspective.”

Running away from home eventually led to Wall becoming homeless in his teens, turning to friends, and on occasions, public parks and restrooms. The lack of a stable home led to him dropping out of school, taking his GED instead to obtain his degree. Wall said the decision allowed him to pursue an alternate route in life.

He’d spend the next few years working in local restaurants, with cannabis supplementing his income. At 20, he saw an opportunity to enter the emerging California cannabis market in Humboldt County. At the time, California was operating as a medical-only marketplace, adhering to the Proposition 215 regulations and its subsequent reforms. Wall said he wanted to help provide cost-efficient cannabis to medical patients. Income would always be welcomed, but he stated several times throughout the interview with High Times that his prime intention was to give customers medical cannabis access.

Wall saw the lifestyle as a way to gain freedom from a society he felt disenfranchised with. He saw the 2008 economic collapse and subsequent lack of prosecution as a sign that society and the system was broken, with the working class left to serve to the rich. Through cannabis and Northern California, he shared that he “saw this as an opportunity to be entirely autonomous from a system that I saw as broken.”

Jonathan Wall
Courtesy Mitzi Wall

Wall found that autonomy and a community he lacked back at home, save for his skateboarding friends. Wall felt he was contributing to a sustainable and victimless livelihood that helped others while providing him a modest living.

The Northern California community was well aware it still faced potential dangers with violating state and federal laws. However, the Obama years and the Cole Memo gave some a slight sense that the Feds were finally coming around on federal decriminalization and eventual legalization.

Wall said operators in the area remained “naturally paranoid” during the period, still in fear of just one person tipping off the Feds. Still, he said the general consensus was that cannabis prosecution was “a 20th century invention finally existing solely in the past,” which wouldn’t cause the unfortunate damages it had for decades before.

He said sentiments began to change when President Donald Trump appointed two anti-cannabis Attorneys Generals during his term, first Jeff Sessions and then William Barr.

Federal intervention became a reality in 2019. Wall was made aware that he was the subject of a crackdown while on vacation with family in Portugal. It was during this time that he said he became aware of the severity of cannabis charges. “Everybody knows it’s federally illegal, but certainly not to that extent until the find themselves affected first-hand,” he stated.

Wall was worried he wouldn’t be allowed back into America without facing apprehension. After those fears were dashed, he first tried to get his affairs in order, but he found many in his trying opting to “cash-out” rather than support him.

Eventually, around autumn 2019, Wall left the U.S. for Central America. He would stay on the run until July 2020 before turning himself over to Feds at Los Angeles’ LAX airport. He would be shipped across the U.S. via bus and “Con-Air” flights, stopping at various prisons along the way, before reaching his current destination in Maryland. He said the journey is known as “diesel therapy.”

Jonathan wall
Courtesy Mitzi Wall

Wall, A First-Time Offender, Fights The Effects Of Prison, COVID-19

While Wall awaits his hearing on nonviolent federal cannabis charges, he is housed at the Chesapeake Detention Facility in Baltimore. The facility, known for its high level of violence, also endured significant exposure to the COVID-19 virus.

“This is no place you want to be,” said Wall, as he reported that stabbings occur regularly. He noted that one prisoner went so far as to have weaponized milk cartons with bodily waste against guards in an assault.

The experience has certainly created an impact on Wall, like it would almost anyone. He doesn’t consider himself institutionalized, but shared that “staying in a groove is essential to healthy adaptation.” To do so, he exercises regularly, reads often and tries to meditate for at least 20 minutes a day. A profound read has been Murray Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty. The book  had a significance in developing his enthusiasm for Libertarianism social and economic structures. He also credited former cannabis convict turned author Richard Stratton for helping with his adjustment. 

Life in the facility worsened when COVID-19 reached the prison, with Wall saying he didn’t know an inmate who didn’t contract the virus. He stated that his symptoms were minimal but remains slightly concerned about possible long-term effects. He alleges that the guards brought in the virus, saying, “It’s the only way it comes in here.” He added that instead of separating infected cellmates from other individuals, the guards would lock the door, not allowing either to leave for days at a time. He called the scenario a nightmare.

Preparing To Fight The Case

Wall waits for his May 2022 first appearance in court. “I will have been incarcerated for 23 months as a legally innocent individual by the time I have my first appearance in court,” said Wall, asking if that timeline adhered to a citizen’s right to a speedy trial.

It is oft-reported that prisoners face harsher sentences if they forgo a plea deal and fight their charges—often forcing many to take a plea regardless or guilt or innocence. Despite the risk, Wall is ready to have his day in court. Whether guilty or innocent, Wall abhors the idea of “surrendering by copping out,” to a plea. He considers doing so accepting defeat. “I’ve known from childhood that these people were wrong,” he said of regulators. He doesn’t believe in fate, but said the case almost feels like something he’s been preparing for some time.

He calls the drug war “the most historically flagrant violation of personal property rights by the state.” Asking who is the government to regulate what a citizen can consume, he added, “especially a natural plant, widely regarded as a holistic medicine.” Wall would later explain that alcohol, pharmaceuticals and shotguns as far more dangerous, readily available legal options.

Wall’s lawyer, Jason Flores-Williams, is a noted activist and is prepared to fight the case.

Flores-Williams isn’t shying away from grand language to drive home his point. “I don’t understand this country’s commitment to ideological necrophilia, the insistence on continuing to have sex with dead ideas,” he said of the ongoing drug war and its effects.

The lawyer added, “I do not intend to live with the distinction of being the last attorney to have his client go to prison for pot.”

Despite the attention being on Wall, he hopes readers understand that he is just one of many continuing to be arrested and forced to serve years, decades for nonviolent cannabis charges. Like himself, many continue to face lengthy prison sentences despite the so-called “Green Rush” of legalization sweeping America.

He believes that without change, others like him will continue to get snared in the system while the powerful continue to escape punishment for the various allegations and crimes. “Are we tired of being lied to, tired of all the lies and the War on Drugs?” Wall asked.

The post Most Affected: Jonathan Wall Will Serve Nearly Two Years Before His First Day in Court For Cannabis appeared first on High Times.