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California: Cannabis is Legal, But You Can Still Go to Jail

Cannabis may now be legal in California, but many Californians remain behind bars on marijuana-related charges.

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

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

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

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

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

What’s more, many cases winding through the courts that might otherwise have resulted in jail time have been knocked down.

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

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

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

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

That category includes Luke Scarmazzo.

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

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

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

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

Now ther is a bill in the California Assembly intended to block state agencies from assisting the Feds in busting people and businesses on cannabis-related charges.

Local authorities often work with federal agencies on investigations that may uncover both state and federal violations, such as money laundering, diverting marijuana out of state for sales, and environmental damage from outdoor pot farms. The Jones-Sawyer bill would likely bar such cooperation if the target of the investigation is a licensed cannabis business in California.

Congress just approved a four-month extension of an amendment that has successfully prohibited the Department of Justice from spending federal funds to prosecute medical marijuana businesses that comply with their states’ laws.

That amendment could be extended further and could be broadened to include recreational marijuana. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) has introduced the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2017 that would protect individuals from federal prosecution if they are adhering to state cannabis laws.

California Marijuana Prisoners

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