Monday, June 22, 2009

Compassionate caregiver or big time drug dealer?

Charles C. Lynch, a former California compassionate caregiver and owner of Morro Bay’s medical marijuana dispensary, was sentenced in federal court June 11 to a prison term of one year, one day for selling large quantities of marijuana.

In handing down the sentence, U.S. District Judge George H. Wu, avoiding the minimum mandatory five-year prison term for “conspiracy to manufacture and distribute marijuana,” appeared to sympathize with Lynch.

According to an Associated Press report, Wu said: “As empathetic as I can be I cannot change the law.”
Under Schedule 1 of the federal Controlled Substances Act, marijuana, like heroin, is listed as a dangerous drug. Thirteen states, however, have legalized the drug for medical uses.

For now, Lynch remains free pending appeal of his case before the 9th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Meanwhile, Lynch, who posted $400,000 bail using his mother’s home as collateral, filed for bankruptcy and has been looking for work in the two years since the federal government shut down his legally operated business.
“It’s hard enough with the economy the way it is,” Lynch said of his job search in a telephone interview, “but it’s even more difficult when you’re a convicted felon.”

Welcomed by Morro Bay’s city officials and chamber of commerce when he opened in April 2006, Lynch was careful to run his Compassionate Caregivers medical marijuana dispensary in compliance with state and local law. To his later dismay, he even contacted the Drug Enforcement Administration for assurance and was told that he would be left alone. It may have been that call, he later said, that led to his troubles.

San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Patrick Hedges, meanwhile, viewed Lynch as another common crook, and assigned undercover detectives to surveillance Lynch’s dispensary.
Unable to obtain a warrant from a local judge, Sheriff Hedges went after Lynch with help from the DEA, which raided the dispensary March 27, 2007. It could be argued that Hedges went after Lynch with prejudice, ignoring community standards, and state and local law.

Lynch, who wasn’t arrested until later, claims that when he and his staff returned to the dispensary after the raid, they found a message from law enforcement that said: “All hippies die.”

Convicted last summer on five counts, including selling marijuana to a minor, Lynch said: “I shouldn’t be a convicted felon for things the state of California and the city of Morro Bay allowed me to do.”

The minor, in fact, was 17-year-old bone cancer patient Owen Beck, whose parents recommended the treatment when prescription medications failed to help him recover from chemotherapy and a leg that had been amputated from the knee down.
Beck, said his parents in an interview with Drew Carey of, was unable to get out of bed and start walking again until he started using medical marijuana.

The federal government, meanwhile, has tried to portray Lynch as a big time drug dealer, rather than a compassionate caregiver, “selling large quantities of marijuana.” The court wouldn’t even allow the use of the term “medical” in its deliberations. Beck was removed from the stand and his testimony stricken from the record when he inadvertently said “medical” to describe his relationship to Lynch.

There was no way for Lynch to mount a fair defense.

Commentators have said the case is a classic state’s rights issue, and that Lynch, for good or ill, has become the poster child for medical marijuana, and that the turn of events, including the injustice of Lynch’s sentencing, will likely result in changes in federal legislation.

In fact, the issue is more about a patient’s right to obtain medicine, and unfortunately, Lynch has paid a high price to be the figurehead for changing federal laws that regulate marijuana. In February, newly appointed U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder assured us that the Department of Justice would cease arrests and prosecutions of medical marijuana dispensary owners who were in compliance with state and local laws.

In response, Judge Wu twice asked the DOJ for guidance in the sentencing of Lynch and was basically told to proceed as planned.

Meanwhile, the DEA appears to continue unabated its pursuit of nonviolent, non-threatening dispensary owners while headless bodies—victims of Mexico’s violent drug cartels—turn up at the border. It’s easy to see why medical marijuana dispensaries, rich in cash and other assets, have become targets in the federal government’s war on drugs.

Dispensary owners seeking to abide by state and local laws are less likely to be as dangerous as real criminals who traffic drugs in the U.S.
The feds seized Lynch’s business assets as well as patients’ health records, shuttered his dispensary, and eliminated access to medical marijuana for patients like Beck who were benefiting from the drug.

Lynch, pending appeal, faces one year, one day in federal prison. That’s one year, one day too much. §

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