Medical pot: what's next?

March 25, 2009

Editorial, Appeal Democrat

U.S. District Judge George Wu on Monday postponed sentencing for Charles Lynch, operator of a medical marijuana dispensary in Morro Bay who had been convicted on federal marijuana distribution charges. After all, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said last week that the Obama administration's policy will be not to conduct raids and prosecutions on patients and providers in states with medical marijuana laws.

This is a welcome recognition of the importance of federalism as a way of allowing states to conduct policy experiments in our constitutional system as well as a more intelligent marshaling of limited federal law enforcement resources. But as Judge Wu noted, for somebody in his position, it created more questions than answers. Lynch has been convicted, but given the new federal policy, what should be the appropriate sentence — the harsh five-year minimum prosecutors have recommended, jail time already served, or a suspension of sentence? Or would it be best if, in light of the new policy and the fact that Lynch has not been sentenced yet, the government moved to dismiss the case?

Some dispensary operators have been raided and are presumably still under investigation though no charges have been filed. Some have been indicted — perhaps as many as 60 to 80, according to Joseph Elford, an attorney for the advocacy group Americans for Safe Access. And perhaps two dozen people are already serving time.

Judge Wu's request for advice from the Justice Department rather than the local prosecuting attorney will force the department to add considerable details to what was a bare-bones statement of intent by Mr. Holder. We would suggest that the cases of everybody who has not yet gone to prison be dropped unless there is rock-solid proof that a provider was really using medical marijuana as a front for distribution that would have been illegal under state law. We'd like to see the sentences of those serving time commuted, but that might be a stretch.

We hope the Justice Department will move quickly and favorably to grant Judge Wu's request.

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