A federal judge sentenced the owner of a Central California medical marijuana dispensary to a year and a day in prison Thursday, spurning the Obama administration's push to give the defendant five years imprisonment in a test case of new federal policies toward state pot laws.
Charles Lynch's case was the first to reach court after Attorney General Eric Holder announced in March that the administration would target only traffickers who violated both state and federal drug laws in California and 12 other states that allow the medical use of marijuana. The Justice Department said Lynch was properly convicted and shouldn't get leniency, despite his insistence that he complied with state law.
Lynch, former operator of Central Coast Compassionate Caregivers in Morro Bay (San Luis Obispo County), is the latest of several marijuana defendants to receive lighter-than-usual sentences for violating federal drug laws after arguing that they were complying with California's voter-approved medical marijuana law.
Federal courts have ruled that the 1996 state law, which allows patients to use the drug with their doctor's approval, is no defense to a charge of violating U.S. laws prohibiting marijuana possession, cultivation and distribution. But some federal judges have taken the state law into account in sentencing.
U.S. District Judge George Wu of Los Angeles didn't spell out his reasons for exempting Lynch, 47, from the five-year sentence normally required by federal law for conspiring to grow and distribute marijuana. But Wu noted that Lynch ran his dispensary openly, with a business license and the awareness of local elected officials, before federal agents raided it in 2007.
At a previous hearing, however, he made it clear that Lynch had to spend at least a year in prison because one of his customers was a minor, whose parents obtained marijuana at the dispensary. Lynch remains free during his appeal, which will challenge Wu's refusal to allow evidence that a federal drug agent had allegedly assured Lynch he would not be prosecuted.
The judge "was trying to do everything he could to minimize the sentence," said Joe Elford, a lawyer for the advocacy group Americans for Safe Access. "This is another case where a federal judge has indicated to the Department of Justice that these cases are not worth bringing."
Prosecutors could ask an appeals court to overrule Wu and order a five-year sentence. The U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles is considering an appeal, said spokesman Thom Mrozek.
"This was a large-scale commercial operator," Mrozek said, referring to prosecutors' assertion that Lynch had sold $2.1 million in marijuana products for profit. "He didn't fit the criteria of being a caregiver" under state law.
Federal prosecutors in California, including U.S. Attorney Joseph Russoniello of San Francisco, have argued that marijuana dispensaries - - even licensed businesses approved by local authorities - are commercial enterprises that violate state as well as federal law and can still be prosecuted under Obama administration policy.
In announcing the new policy in March, Holder did not say how it would apply to defendants already awaiting trial or sentencing after being charged by Bush administration prosecutors. Citing Holder's announcement, Wu asked for a formal Justice Department statement in Lynch's case and was promptly told that Lynch's prosecution, conviction and proposed five-year sentence were consistent with the attorney general's position.
Medical marijuana advocates, who wore green "compassion" buttons in the packed courtroom, had mixed reactions to the sentence, praising Wu for leniency but criticizing the imposition of any prison term.
"This was a guy who tried very hard to do everything by the book, working with the city, getting a business license," said Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project. "To treat this man as a criminal, a felony drug dealer feels counter to the spirit of the policy Mr. Holder announced."
June 12, 2009 -- New York Times (NY)
Prison Term For A Seller Of Medical Marijuana
By Solomon Moore
LOS ANGELES -- A federal judge on Thursday sentenced the owner of a marijuana dispensary to a year in prison, a sign that providers of medical marijuana still face the possibility of jail time despite the Obama administration's promise not to prosecute them if they comply with state law.
In imposing his sentence on Charles C. Lynch, who ran a dispensary in the surfing hamlet of Morro, Judge George H. Wu said the changed federal policy did not directly affect his ruling. But the judge talked at length about what he said were Mr. Lynch's many efforts to follow California's laws on marijuana dispensaries and the difficulty the judge had finding a loophole to avoid sending him to prison.
"I find I cannot get around the one-year sentence," Judge Wu said of federal sentencing laws.
The judge said he had reduced the sentence from a mandatory five years because Mr. Lynch had no criminal record or history of violence, and did not fit the strict definition of a "leader" of a criminal enterprise.
Mr. Lynch, 47, was convicted last summer on five federal counts in connection with the running of his dispensary and the selling of medical marijuana to customers under 21.
Legal experts said the case highlighted the conflict between state and federal laws on medical marijuana. Federal law prohibits the cultivation, sale and use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, but 13 states allow it. In prosecuting for medical marijuana, the Bush administration had considered only federal laws.
Advocates of medical marijuana said the Lynch case would have a chilling effect on activities and undermine state laws. At his trial, and again in seeking leniency in his sentence, Mr. Lynch argued that he had complied with California's law, which allows certain uses of marijuana with a doctor's prescription.
"He is caught between California's voter-approved medical marijuana system and the Bush administration's single-minded effort to smother it," said Stephen Gutwillig of the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that favors a change in drug policy. "That Attorney General Holder changed federal policy three months ago only makes this miscarriage of justice all the more disturbing. Charlie is like a forgotten prisoner of war, abandoned after a truce was declared."
The United States attorney for the Central District of California, Thomas P. O'Brien, said Mr. Lynch had violated state laws because he was not his customers' main caregiver and provided no medical services beyond the marijuana sale.
Matthew Miller, a Justice Department spokesman, said that as a general rule "we are not prioritizing federal resources to go after individuals or organizations unless there is a violation of both federal and state law."
More than 100 marijuana dispensaries -- most in California -- have been raided since 1996, when California voters passed Proposition 215, which sanctioned medical marijuana. About half the raids resulted in prosecutions, and about a dozen owners received prison sentences.
There are now about 25 pending federal prosecutions of medical marijuana dispensaries, most in California, said Kris Hermes, a spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy organization.
Among them is a case against Virgil Grant, whose dispensary was raided twice in 2007. He is scheduled to go on trial in the fall. But unlike Mr. Lynch, Mr. Grant has a criminal record and so faces at least 10 years in prison.
Most advocates of medical marijuana agreed that Mr. Lynch presented the best face for a movement that has tried to cast itself as mainstream -- like yoga and herbal medicine -- and distance itself from recreational drug use and advocates for legalization of marijuana.
Mr. Lynch's defense lawyer, Reuven Cohen, said he planned to appeal the sentence.
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