George Martorano was supposed to die in federal prison.
Sentenced to life without parole in 1984, Martorano spent more than three decades in a series of “supermax” facilities after pleading guilty to running what prosecutors said was a $75 million-a-year narcotics ring.
“I was told the only way I’d get out was in a body bag," said Martarano. "I proved them wrong.”
Martorano — who once trafficked tons of marijuana and other illegal substances -- has been reborn as a legal cannabis entrepreneur.
The only thing he runs now is a cozy coffee shop, the Hip Hemp Cafe in South Philadelphia, where he serves CBD-infused hot drinks, lollipops, and muffins.
Once described by the FBI as a drug kingpin, Martorano has an empire that is small, but he plans to grow it into a chain of 12 shops down the East Coast from Staten Island to Fort Lauderdale. He currently employs five millennials -- none with an Italian last name, he quipped -- within the 600-square-foot retail space just off South Street. The building, on the 600 block of South Seventh Street, is owned by his sister and brother-in-law, records show.
“I’ve turned my nightmare into something more profound,” said Martorano, 69. “Now look at me. And look at what I’ve done.”
Martorano -- who has been called the longest serving nonviolent offender in U.S. history -- spent 32 years in prison. He was released from prison in 2015 for good behavior. He says he’s not going to blow his second chance.
When he was set free, there were only two places in South Philly he said hadn’t changed in the years since he was locked up: His mother’s house on Fitzwater Street, where he lives and takes care of her, and his favorite restaurant, the Saloon, where he’s a regular.
Martorano looks nothing like the Philly street hustler he once was. He exudes warm confidence and a sense of refined style more akin to a tanned and fit Hollywood character actor. He doesn’t deny his past.
“I’m not saying I was innocent,” said Martorano, the son of the late mobster Raymond “Long John” Martorano. “For three years, I was a weed dealer. But I was never a part of Cosa Nostra. It was my father who was in with those guys. Not me. I was never a ‘made’ man.”
Martorano is one of several business operators seeking to resurrect themselves in Pennsylvania’s emerging legal cannabis marketplace. Once-disgraced Tour de France champion Floyd Landis, who remade himself as a marijuana entrepreneur in Colorado, announced last week that he would open the first of several cycling-themed CBD cafes in Lancaster.
As a convicted felon, Martorano is prohibited from selling medical marijuana in Pennsylvania. But that doesn’t prevent him from vending dozens of products infused with a legal cannabis derivative called CBD, or cannabidiol.
“Everything in my store has CBD in it,” he said.
CBD is a non-intoxicating compound extracted from industrial hemp, the look-alike cousin of psychoactive marijuana. Some believe CBD has numerous health benefits. It has been touted as a near-magical supplement and used to reduce anxiety and treat inflammation. Though the FDA recently approved a prescription version to treat some rare forms of childhood epilepsy, there is no scientific evidence CBD is effective for any other conditions.
“I use it myself. I believe in it,” said Martorano, who prefers to smoke hemp flower high in CBD. “I take it for relaxation. I do so many things now I need to relax.”
A glass display case highlights pre-rolled joints packed with industrial hemp, CBD vape cartridges, CBD creams, and CBD-infused hot sauce. A tall plexiglass canister was filled with smokable hemp flowers that could be easily confused with psychoactive THC-rich marijuana buds.
The Hip Hemp Cafe’s manager, Chris Mendenhall, said that if Pennsylvania ever legalizes marijuana for adult recreational use, the store will be well-poised to serve that market. “I’d have to bail out if that happened,” said Martorano. “But my job is to market this place.”
Since the shop opened Jan. 23, the Hip Hemp Cafe has grossed $1,000 to $2,000 a day, Martarano said.
One of the two smartphones he carries chirped as he recounted his life behind bars. Martorano winced as he pulled the device out of his sport coat pocket and muted the ringer.
“I hadn’t held a cell phone until Oct. 5, 2015, when I was released to my sister in St. Pete,” he said. “Now I’m sentenced to this friggin’ thing. I don’t know what’s worse, life without parole or this ... cell phone.”
By all accounts, Martorano was a stellar inmate with a gift for storytelling.
“I know while he was in prison he made the best of his time. He wrote books. He taught classes,” said Jim Sweeney, the retired FBI agent who led the investigation that found Martorano guilty of dealing tons of marijuana and tens of thousands of Quaaludes. The agent also videotaped Martorano conspiring in a hotel room to distribute mass quantities of heroin with the Black Mafia in North Philadelphia.
Martorano insists he was only “a weed guy.” He claims the sentencing judge gave the unprecedented term to force him to flip on his father and other mob bosses. He said the feds arrested him at a North Miami hotel and charged him with shipping a literal truckload of cannabis to Philadelphia. “It was only 2,600 pounds of weed, and I wasn’t even there,” he protested.
Louis R. Pichini, the former federal prosecutor who locked him up, said Martorano was “trying to reconstruct history."
“It was much more than marijuana,” said Pichini, now legal counsel at Deloitte. "And the evidence supported it. We never had a case with the evidence as strong as that one. We had hours and hours of tape.”
Over the decades, he evolved from a budding wise guy to self-styled wise man.
Driven by five-years in solitary confinement, Martorano became a prolific writer. “Every time there was a mob hit in Philadelphia, they threw me in the hole,” he said. During Martorano’s first years inside, during the mid-'80s, gangsters were gunned down routinely on city streets. With so much time on his hands, Martorano penned the first of his hard-boiled novels. He didn’t stop until he had completed 31. Among the titles: Pain Grows a Platinum Rose, Lion Love Last, and The Honey Keeper.
He no longer writes. “I can only do that in a cell,” he said.
But in prison, his love of storytelling blossomed into a full-time job. He taught creative writing to inmates. Without chalk and a blackboard, he improvised, using a blue bar of soap to write on a prison wall in a room called “the pit,” he said. He discovered a talent for lecturing and created a life-skills class.
“I basically gave birth to a revived federal reentry program, though I never took credit. You always give the credit to the warden," he said with a broad smile. “Only a fool upstages the warden.”
Outside the walls, Martorano now takes credit for personally training more than 8,000 men.
“It was a lifestyle change course," Martorano said. “Teach 'em how to be on time. How to be respectful. How to take care of themselves. I taught them how to talk. I told them to get into sales when they got out. I showed them the way up and out. Gave them hope.”
He was the coordinator of his prison’s suicide prevention program, he said, and was even elected as the first Caucasian to the board of the Coleman Federal Penitentiary’s branch of NAACP. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons said it could not comment on inmate activities.
George Anastasia, retired mob writer for the Inquirer, said Martorano was one of the few figures associated with local organized crime to successfully overcome his past.
“He survived and was able to come back on the other side of this,” said Anastasia. “Georgie’s sane, lucid and productive. It goes to his character that he was able to do all that.”
Martorano’s good works paid off.
“Those were the deciding factors that led to my release,” Martorano said. “The staff also wanted me to get out. I can’t thank them enough.”
After he was set free, Martorano was celebrated as a marijuana folk hero. He embarked on a speaking tour. He recorded a well-received TEDx presentation at the University of Pennsylvania on how he became a writer. It has been viewed nearly 400,000 times.
“I kept hearing about CBD,” he said. So he took a course in running a dispensary where he could provide it to people who need it. “I had been following the news about marijuana getting legalized out west. But I heard a lot about mothers using CBD to help their children.”
He wants to help people. He wants that to be his legacy.
“It’s not about me," he said. "This is all about helping other people. If anything, I want to be known as the Kingpin of Hope. Remember that title: George Martorano, the Kingpin of Hope. That’s who I am now.”