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Free Rudi Gammo: Michiganders demand Gov. Whitmer pardon medical marijuana prisoner

August 31, 2021

In some legal states, the government requires the entire cannabis industry to be vertically integrated. That means stores can only sell cannabis that they grow themselves and handle entirely in-house from “seed to sale.”

Vertical integration is meant to make it easier for regulators, including law enforcement, to keep tabs on the industry. But in Michigan, vertical integration landed Rudi Gammo, a medical cannabis pioneer, in prison, where he’s currently serving a 5½  year sentence.  

On Wednesday, Sept. 1, Gammo’s attorney, family, friends, and supporters will gather at 10 a.m. at the Oakland County Courthouse in Pontiac, MI, to call for his immediate release and the dropping of all charges against him. The rally is being organized by Last Prisoner Project.

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A pioneering medical marijuana caregiver

Rudi Gammo was among the very first people licensed by the City of Detroit to operate a medical cannabis dispensary. He only sold to those with medical cannabis cards issued by the state. He stocked his shelves with cannabis grown in nearby houses that he owned, with each house assigned to a caregiver who tended to the crop.

According to Gammo’s attorney, as well as industry sources active at the time, this was standard operating procedure back when Michigan’s medical marijuana industry was still operating in a legal gray area. But technically, the state’s medical cannabis law forbade that very kind of vertical integration. Gammo’s ownership of the houses put him in violation, even though he had a license to sell cannabis and the state allowed caregivers to grow it.

“Rudi Gammo was convicted of non-violent marijuana offenses when marijuana was still criminalized in Michigan,” his attorney, Barton Morris, recently told Leafly. “Marijuana offenses have been decriminalized in this state since 2019, so Rudi’s continued imprisonment is the epitome of injustice. Had he committed the same offenses today, he could not have been given a prison sentence. So it’s past time for Rudi and others in a similar situation to be free from the criminal justice system.”

Rally for Rudi in Pontiac

The Sept. 1 rally is expected to bring public attention to Gammo’s situation, and press Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to pardon the caregiver for doing something that is no longer illegal.

“Rudi needs to be home with me and our children,” Vida Gammo tells Leafly. “He’s suffered far too much already.”

Rudi Gammo suffers from chronic stomach ulcers and degenerative joint disease. Last year he was infected with COVID-19 while incarcerated. 

“It was a whole year that we didn’t see each other once,” Vida Gammo says. “We couldn’t hold each other’s hands—nothing. We were barely able to talk on the phone. When he first got diagnosed we filed a motion for his release, but it was denied.”

In October, Rudi Gammo learned that his son Santino was diagnosed with leukemia on his sixth birthday. Santino’s now in remission, but is still undergoing treatments.

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No problems until a 5 a.m. arrest

“We never had problems with the authorities until the police came to our house at five in the morning,” Vida Gammo says, recalling her husband’s arrest. “Rudi had a license from the city, so we didn’t think that could ever happen.”

Rudi’s interest in medical cannabis stemmed from witnessing how smoking joints helped a close friend get through cancer treatment. His shop on 8 Mile Avenue was one of Detroit’s first licensed medical cannabis dispensaries. He and his staff served people from all over the city—“all walks of life”—with all kinds of ailments.

“His motivation was helping people, and he did, without creating any problems,” Vida says of her husband. “Unfortunately, I think he’s being unfairly targeted in this case because he’s had a criminal record in the past. He’s been incarcerated before, but that also means he’s paid for whatever he did when he was young. Meanwhile, the crimes he’s incarcerated for now are victimless crimes that aren’t even crimes anymore.”

‘Everybody’s with us but the judge, so far.’

The Gammo family has an unlikely ally in their attempt to overturn what they call an unjust sentence: Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald. Earlier this year, McDonald added her name to a motion requesting the court set aside Gammo’s guilty pleas and/or re-sentence him.

Significantly, McDonald is newly elected to her position. She ran as a progressive prosecutor and unseated a three-term incumbent in the Democratic primary. It was her predecessor, former prosecutor Jessica Cooper, who handled the original case against Rudi Gammo. And it was Cooper who added a conspiracy charge to each of the seven felony charges she brought against him, essentially treating Gammo like a drug lord instead of a city-licensed medical cannabis supplier.

Targeted with the type of prosecutorial tactics meant to take down “ongoing criminal enterprises” like street gangs and organized crime, Rudi Gammo eventually pled guilty in exchange for a reduced sentence.

He now sits in prison for breaking laws that no longer exist, on draconian conspiracy charges dreamed up by a prosecutor who soon after got voted out of office.

“Everybody’s with us but the judge, so far.” Vida Gammo says. “We are hoping that the judge will have a change of heart.”

Prosecutor: Gammo’s ‘conduct has been decriminalized.’

When listing her reasons for supporting the motion to let Rudi out of prison, newly elected prosecutor Karen McDonald refers to her position as coming from “the people.” That’s because she serves as a public official, entrusted by the citizens to determine which crimes merit prosecution and with what charges.

In this case, McDonald clearly thinks that the prison time Rudi Gammo has already served more than fits the crime. She has written:

As defendant correctly notes in his brief, the conduct for which defendant is incarcerated has been decriminalized. Given that, given the time defendant has already served, and given the hardship continued incarceration will work on defendant in light of his family and health circumstances, the people concur in defendant’s request for relief.

An appeal denied by judge

On August 20th, this motion from the Gammo family, with McDonald concurring, went before Judge Matis. And was denied—a terribly disappointing ruling, and a surprising one given the prosecutor’s stated position in favor of release.

Gammo’s legal team will soon file a motion for reconsideration, which they describe as a “last attempt” in the appeals process.         

If they can’t change the judge’s mind, the only other avenue to pursue would be a potential pardon from Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. In Dec. 2020, Whitmer commuted the sentence of Michael Thompson, who served 25 years for selling three pounds of cannabis to an undercover informant.

Michigan voters legalized the adult use of cannabis in 2018 by a wide margin.

Does the governor truly believe it’s the will of the people to keep Rudi Gammo locked away from his wife and children?

David Bienenstock's Bio Image
David Bienenstock

Veteran cannabis journalist David Bienenstock is the author of "How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High" (2016 - Penguin/Random House), and the co-host and co-creator of the podcast "Great Moments in Weed History with Abdullah and Bean." Follow him on Twitter @pot_handbook.

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