Prison Term for a Seller of Medical Marijuana
June 11, 2009
Solomon Moore, New York Times
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.