366-day sentence for pot dispensary owner
June 11, 2009
Bob Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle
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."