Lynching Charlie Lynch: A Film by Rick Ray (2012, Rick Rays Films, 1:40, $29.95 DVD)
Of all the various fronts of the war on drugs, the assault on medical marijuana patients and providers may not be the stupidest -- that distinction probably belongs to the ban on hemp farming -- but it is arguably the cruelest. No fair-minded observer can doubt that marijuana soothes many maladies, and there is an ever-increasing mountain of peer-reviewed scientific and medical research to back that up.
And no one can listen to the testimonials of patients suffering serious ailments about the relief they've found with marijuana without empathizing with their all-too-real suffering. My personal experience is only anecdotal, but I've been meeting bona fide patients for years now, people with multiple sclerosis, people undergoing chemotherapy, people debilitated by agonizing migraine headaches -- all of whom swear by the weed.
Sure, California's medical marijuana allows virtually anyone with $75 and the ability to say "chronic pain" to get a medical recommendation, and many people who arguably suffer no real infirmity take advantage of that, but the fact that some people are using medical marijuana recommendations as a "get out of jail free" card certainly does not negate the reality of marijuana's therapeutic value--it's just one more hypocritical artifact of prohibition.
But it's been nearly 16 years since voters in California passed Proposition 215, starting a social and political phenomenon that has now spread across the country, and the federal government remains intransigent. At times aided and abetted by recalcitrant local sheriffs, prosecutors, and other elected officials, the Justice Department right now is busily putting the screws to California's dispensaries. They've managed to run more than 400 of them out of business in the past year by the exercise of federal muscle: DEA raids, threats of federal criminal prosecution -- sometimes carried out -- and threats of asset forfeiture directed at dispensary landlords.
It seems so dry when you just type the words out on the page, but what we are talking about is the destroying of people's lives by their own government, a war waged against citizens by the people who are supposed to be serving them. Imagine what a DEA SWAT team raid is like, as a nonviolent dispensary operator who's targeted -- and that can be just the beginning. Then they take all your possessions, your computers, your bank accounts, leaving you penniless, probably car-less, possibly homeless -- if you're lucky. If you're not, you're then staring into the maw of the federal criminal prosecution machine, a particularly Kafkaesque prospect when it comes to federal medical marijuana prosecutions, where dispensary operators become "drug dealers" in trials where the words "medical marijuana" are not to be spoken.
Charlie Lynch's sad saga begins a few years earlier, back when George W. Bush was still president, but his tale is all too familiar by now. In his powerfully rendered Lynching Charlie Lynch
, award-winning filmmaker, writer, and producer Rick Ray manages to illuminate the human reality (and the inhuman idiocy) of the war on medical marijuana distributors. As many Chronicle readers no doubt recall, Lynch operated the Central Coast Compassion Center in Morro Bay, California, until he was raided, arrested, and convicted on federal marijuana trafficking charges in federal court.
Through interviews with Lynch, his neighbors, his landlord, and local attorneys and politicians, interspersed with TV news accounts and surveillance videos, Ray portrays a socially awkward straight arrow of a man, whose most serious offense before his run-in with Uncle Sam was a speeding ticket (which his mother explains he got expunged by taking a defensive driving course). Lynch found his way to medical marijuana not out of any affinity for the weed or because he hung in stoner milieus (he didn't), but because he heard it might help with his excruciating migraine headaches (it did).
Lynch subsequently tired of driving miles to the nearest dispensary and decided he was interested in opening one in San Luis Obispo County, where he lived. The fastidious Lynch researched the laws, even asking the DEA what its policy on medical marijuana dispensaries was -- it was up to state and local law enforcement, they told him. He filled out his forms, got his business license, rented a property, and had a ribbon-cutting with the Chamber of Commerce in attendance. He had the support of the mayor and other town officials. He was operating within the mandates of state law. He thought he was doing everything right.
None of that mattered to Sheriff Pat Hedges, who like too many in law enforcement who cannot accept laws they don't believe in, and tried fruitlessly for a year to find some way to bring Lynch down. His deputies surveilled the premises, they followed workers and patients from the dispensary, they tried unsuccessfully to set up undercover buys, but they couldn't come up with enough evidence of any violation of state law to get a judge to sign a search warrant.
Then, in a betrayal of his community and out of a sense of frustration that he was unable to nail Lynch, Hedges sicced the feds on him. Hedges' deputies joined forces with DEA agents to raid the Compassion Center and Lynch's residence, where he was shoved to the floor naked with a rifle pointed to his head.
Lynching Charlie Lynch
tells the story of his transformation from respected local businessman to convicted federal drug dealer, the sleazy legal machinations of the federal prosecutors turning his prosecution and trial into a sordid charade, a mockery of justice. But his story is bigger than one man. It is also a story about a healing plant and about a nation that can't seem to come to grips with it, a nation that somehow thinks it's justifiable or even sane to persecute people for growing plants for others.
Along the way, Rick Ray takes a few side-trips that only add to the documentary. He talks to University of California at San Francisco researcher Dr. Donald Abrams about how he recommends marijuana for a wide variety of ailments and he talks to Professor Lyle Craker, the Massachusetts plant scientist who has sought -- so far unsuccessfully -- permission from the DEA to grow marijuana for the purpose of conducting clinical trials of its medical efficacy. The stolid, white-haired researcher offers up a powerful indictment of a corrupted federal research process.
Ray also talks to some representatives of the other side, and I want to thank him for giving folks like California anti-drug activist Paul Chabot, anti-marijuana fanatic Dr. Eric Voth and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America's David Evans the opportunity to display their character with their own words. When confronted with Lynch's fate, the smarmy, sanctimonious Chabot, a self-described "Christian" who says there are no legitimate medical marijuana dispensaries, said that he would pray for him "and maybe he will come to terms with what he did and join our side some day."
Similarly, Evans does his best to appear to be a thoughtful, rational human being, but gives himself away when he goes on a rant about the dangers of growing pot."They endanger others by setting up these facilities when there is no proof there," the former prosecutor muttered darkly. "He could have harmed people, killed people, caused cancer, caused birth defects. If someone chooses to put other people at risk, they should be prepared to take the consequences."
Uh, we're talking about growing a plant here.
Charlie Lynch's story isn't over yet, although he's already lost most everything. One of the last scenes of the film shows him putting his remaining belongings into storage after his house went into foreclosure in the wake of his prosecution. And he is still waiting to find out if he will have to go to federal prison. He's already been sentenced, but is appealing.
Lynch may be appealing, but what happened to him at the hands of his own government is appalling. Rick Ray deserves major credit for bringing his compelling story to the screen with grace, tenderness, and just the right touch of righteous indignation.