04.04.2016
policy

I Got 22 Years in Prison for Running a Legal Dispensary

You play by the book, and a federal judge still throws the book at you.

We've all heard the infamous statistic: The USA accounts for 5 percent of the world's population yet houses 25 percent of the world's prison population.

Incarcerating a quarter of the world's prisoners comes at tremendous financial and social costs. I know these costs well because I'm involved with these figures, or to put it more precisely, intimate with them. I'm federal prisoner number 63131-097, serving a 22-year sentence.

My codefendant, Ricardo Montes, is serving 20 years. It would be easy to infer that with a 20-plus year sentence we must have done something reprehensible.

I'll explain why we are incarcerated shortly, but first let’s get to the business side of it. The bottom line.

The price tag to house one federal inmate according to the Bureau of Prisons' accounting for FY2014 is $30,619.85 annually. Multiply that amount by our sentence lengths, and you'll get roughly $1.2 million. But we are not done there; we have to backtrack a bit.

At that moment, the sea of officers parted. In walked who I would later learn was the Agent in Charge. 

Ricardo and I went through two years of court proceedings. Our trial lasted several weeks, so factor in the salary costs of judges, prosecutors, marshals and other courtroom personnel. Law-enforcement conducted a 15-month investigation leading up to our arrest, an arrest that halted the flow of more than a million dollars annually in tax revenues.

In sum, by the end of our sentence, American taxpayers will have footed a bill of nearly $10 million. And we haven't even touched on the social, intangible costs. But maybe it was worth it. Perhaps it was money well spent in order to keep society safe.

THE TAKE DOWN

On a crisp September morning in 2006, federal agents in military fatigues, carrying automatic weapons and draped in tactical gear, were at their staging area going over the final details of their plan. They were preparing to take down their target. I just didn't know when I answered my door bell at 6 a.m. that I, in fact, was their target.

They stormed into my home, slammed me against the wall, and handcuffed me. With the efficiency of soldiers in a war zone, the machinegun-wielding agents cleared every room of the house. Luckily, the rest of my family was out of town for the week. Then two agents led me stumbling over to the kitchen table and sat me down. At that moment, the sea of officers parted. In walked who I would later learn was the Agent in Charge. He had on an army green flak vest that loudly announced, in big yellow letters, DEA.


Image via Office of Public Affairs/Flickr

THE DISPENSARY

In 1996 California voters passed the Compassionate Use Act, which legalized the use, cultivation, and possession of marijuana for medical purposes. Eight years later, in 2004, the State Senate passed S.B. 420, which established a vague supply chain for state qualified patients. Shortly thereafter, Ricardo and I hired attorneys, obtained business licenses, and then opened California Healthcare Collective, Modesto's first medical marijuana dispensary.

Our patient base grew quickly. Being the only dispensary within a 100-mile radius, we saved patients from undertaking the long journey to the San Francisco Bay Area. Inside the glass doors of the dispensary sat a receptionist, an expansive waiting room, and two licensed security guards. For the many Americans who have never been inside a dispensary, the feel could best be described as an atmosphere similar to your family physician's office. We stocked three categories of high-, mid- and low-potency marijuana as well as concentrates, topical ointments, and starter plants.

During our trial, we admitted that we provided medical marijuana to the patients of Modesto.

It was a rigorous process to get approved to purchase marijuana. The regulations were plentiful, but people were just happy to have safe access in the community.

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THE COURTROOM

As the federal drug agents took me from my kitchen table to the back of a police car, my head was still spinning. I couldn't understand why we, out of the thousands of dispensaries throughout the state, were being arrested. I guess we were just one of the unlucky ones.

In the U.S. Eastern District Court of California we were charged with conspiracy, distribution, and cultivation of marijuana. More importantly, we were also charged with conducting a Continuing Criminal Enterprise (CCE), a Nixon-era drug kingpin offense that carries a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence. No medical marijuana dispensary operator has ever been convicted under this fearsome statute. It has historically been reserved for cartel leaders and international drug kingpins. In fact, the charge is so rarely used that only 0.02 percent of inmates in the U.S., that’s 427 of them, are serving sentences under CCE.

During our trial, we admitted that we provided medical marijuana to the patients of Modesto. As a result, we were found guilty and sentenced to multiple-decade prison terms. Upon learning of our sentence length, two members of the jury publicly denounced the sentence and recanted the verdict. The maximum federal guideline sentence for aggravated second-degree murder is 262 months. That's the same amount of prison time I received.


Image via Change.org

THE REAL VICTIMS

Earlier I wrote about the financial burden of our incarceration.

Now I'd like to elaborate on the societal costs. My daughter, Jasmine, was four years old when I was arrested. Ricardo's daughter, Nina, was two. Today they are entering high school and junior high school, respectively. They have spent much of their young lives growing up without their fathers. The impact is visible and saddening. According to a 2014 Rutgers University study, 1 in 28 children in the USA currently have an incarcerated parent. These children have a greater chance of living in poverty and an increased risk of experiencing serious mental-health issues. To tell the world how much they've been affected by our lengthy incarceration, Nina and Jasmine started a Change.org petition asking the President to grant us clemency. 

Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have medical marijuana laws in place. In a time when partisanship in the U.S. Congress is at an all time high, one issue that both parties have agreed on is that states’ medical marijuana laws should be respected. In December 2015, Congress passed legislation that protects dispensary operators against arrest. Also, since 2013, the Obama administration has directed the Department of Justice to no longer prosecute medical—or even recreational—marijuana providers who are operating under state law. Yet without receiving executive clemency from the President, Ricardo and I will continue to struggle through lengthy sentences that continue to waste money and lives.

Editor's Note: Nina Montes and Jasmine Scarmazzo's Change.org petition can be signed at this link.

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