Bay Area Medical Marijuana Dispensary Operators Latest to Be Sentenced in Federal Court 6 months imprisonment, $821,000 forfeiture for Norton brothers who ran a licensed dispensary in Alameda County

October 10, 2013 | Kris Hermes

San Jose, CA -- Four people connected to a licensed medical marijuana dispensary in Alameda County were scheduled to be sentenced today in federal court in a prosecution that has lasted more than six years. Brothers Winslow and Abraham Norton accepted a plea bargain in April, agreeing to money laundering and conspiracy charges, as well as the forfeiture of more than $800,000.

Three defendants were ultimately sentenced today by U.S. District Court Judge D. Lowell Jensen, but the fourth defendant, Winslow Norton, who is currently in federal custody, was never brought to court by U.S. Marshals. Winslow Norton's sentencing was rescheduled forTuesday, October 15th at 1:30pm, but he is expected to receive the same sentence as his brother Abraham who was sentenced today to six months imprisonment followed by six months of alternative detention and three years of supervised release. The Nortons' father, Michael, and the dispensary's manager, Brian Everett, who were indicted two years after Winslow and Abraham, both pleaded guilty to lesser charges and were sentenced to probation.

After adopting a local ordinance in 2005 regulating medical marijuana distribution, the County of Alameda under the authority of then-Sheriff Charles Plummer registered and licensed three dispensaries, one of which was the Compassionate Collective of Alameda County (CCAC). The Nortons had operated CCAC for more than two years in full compliance with local and state medical marijuana laws, and despite assurances from the Sheriff's Department that CCAC was safe from federal intrusion, the dispensary was raided by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 2007. Although all of the dispensaries in Alameda County were shut down as a result, only the operators of CCAC were criminally indicted.

"These sentences are a marked improvement over recent efforts by the Obama Administration to seek mandatory minimum sentences of five to ten years in prison, however they still illustrate the unfortunate reality of federal officials aggressively prosecuting medical marijuana cases," said Joe Elford, Chief Counsel with Americans for Safe Access, commenting on today's sentencing hearing. "No dispensary operator should endure a federal conviction or spend time in prison when they are acting in compliance with state medical marijuana law."

Today's sentencing comes just weeks after the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a directive to U.S. Attorneys signaling a change to the federal government's enforcement priorities. In September, U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole testified before Congress that the DOJ was not interested in targeting those in compliance with state marijuana laws. The latest news notwithstanding, the Obama Administration has engaged in aggressive, expensive, and unprecedented attacks in medical marijuana states over the past five years.

For most of their prosecution, the four defendants had been facing mandatory minimum sentences of more than 20 years in prison. In 2009, three weeks after the Norton brothers refused a previous plea deal of five years in prison, Michael Norton and Brian Everett were indicted in what appeared to be a retaliatory move by the government. In addition, according to the Nortons, $600,000 of the money seized by the federal government and now forfeit as part of the plea agreement was taken from a dedicated sales tax account.

The vast majority of federal medical marijuana cases are never tried. Because those indicted have no ability to use a medical necessity or state law defense in federal court, most defendants are forced to take plea bargains rather than face the consequences of an unfair trial. Numerous medical marijuana defendants over the past couple of years have received mandatory minimum sentences of 5-10 years in prison.

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