LOS ANGELES --- A medical marijuana dispensary operator
whose federal case has gained considerable attention in the media was sentenced
today to one year in prison and four years of supervised release. Charles C.
Lynch was convicted in 2008 under the Bush Administration and had been awaiting
sentencing under the new Obama Administration.
The sentence handed down by
federal District Court Judge George H. Wu is considered lenient given that the
Justice Department was seeking the mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years.
Despite indications of a new policy on medical marijuana, the Justice
Department refused to agree with defense attorneys' contention that Lynch
deserved a sentence of time served. Lynch is currently out on bail pending his
appeal, but cannot use medical marijuana according to the terms of his release.
"Fortunately, the judge saw through the federal government's argument that
Lynch deserved five years in prison, and instead sentenced him to the least
amount of time he could," said Joe Elford, Chief Counsel with the national
advocacy group Americans for Safe Access (ASA). "Recognizing that Lynch
had not violated any state or local laws, the judge was lenient despite the
protestations of the federal government." On two of the counts against
Lynch, Judge Wu sentenced him to time served.
Lynch's sentencing comes at a time when the Obama Administration has indicated
a willingness to develop a new policy on medical marijuana. During his election
campaign, President Obama said that he was "not going to be using Justice
Department resources to try to circumvent state laws" on medical
marijuana. That was followed up with statements by newly-appointed U.S.
Attorney General Eric Holder that the Justice Department would only "go
after those people who violate both federal and state law."
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Administration's commitment to a new policy on medical marijuana prompted Judge
Wu to request written clarification from the government regarding that policy's
impact on Lynch's case. However, a response from the Deputy Attorney General's
office explained that his case was unaffected.
Continued drug enforcement raids on medical marijuana dispensaries under the
Obama Administration has prompted Congress to seek clarification on this new
policy. On Tuesday, Congressman Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) got report language
approved within the Commerce, Justice and Science Departments (CJS)
"It's imperative that the federal government respect
states' rights and stay out of the way of patients with debilitating diseases
such as cancer who are using medical marijuana in accordance with state law to
alleviate their pain," said Hinchey in a press release issued Tuesday.
"We applaud Congressman Hinchey's leadership on this issue and his attempt
to restrict interference by the federal government in medical marijuana
states," said Caren Woodson, ASA's Director of Government Affairs.
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There are more than two dozen pending federal cases like Lynch's for which the
government has failed to signal any change in strategy. Advocates contend that
the federal government should either cease such prosecutions or , at the very
least, remove the cases to state court where medical evidence can properly be
heard. Because of the June 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Gonzales v.
Raich, federal medical marijuana defendants are prohibited from entering
evidence related to medical marijuana or their compliance with local and state
laws. Advocates argue that the exclusion of evidence is the reason why Lynch
and others are being convicted in federal court.
Before his medical marijuana dispensary was raided by Drug Enforcement
Administration (DEA) agents in March of 2007, Lynch had operated for 11 months
without incident, and with the blessing of the Morro Bay City Council, the
local Chamber of Commerce, and other community members.
Two months after Lynch
closed his dispensary, Central Coast Compassionate Caregivers, he was indicted
and charged with conspiracy to possess and possession with intent to distribute
marijuana and concentrated cannabis, manufacturing more than 100 plants,
knowingly maintaining a drug premises, and sales of marijuana to a person under
the age of 21. None of the federal charges Lynch was convicted of constituted
violations of local or state law.