Feature: Feds Score Another Conviction Against a California Medical Marijuana Dispensary Operator

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #546)
Politics & Advocacy

In a trial that garnered national attention because of the conflict between state and federal marijuana laws, a federal jury in Los Angeles Tuesday convicted the owner of a Morro Bay medical marijuana dispensary on five counts of violating federal drug laws. As was the case in previous federal prosecutions, the defense was not allowed to mount a medical marijuana defense or even mention the words "medical marijuana" during the course of the trial.

[inline:charlielynch.gif align=left caption="Charlie Lynch (from friendsofccl.com)"]Charles Lynch, 46, operator of Central Coast Compassionate Caregivers in San Luis Obispo County, faces a minimum of five years in prison and as many as 85 years after being found guilty of distributing more than 100 kilograms of marijuana, some of to people considered minors under federal law.

Federal prosecutors portrayed Lynch as a mercenary drug dealer, toting around backpacks full of cash and selling dope to minors. One minor, Owen Beck, actually took the stand in Lynch's defense. Beck suffers from bone cancer, and accompanied by his parents, he would visit the dispensary to purchase medical marijuana recommended to him by his Stanford University oncologist. But as soon as Beck mentioned that he was ill, Federal District Court Judge George Wu blocked his testimony.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times after reaching a verdict, jury forewoman Kitty Meese said jurors understood Lynch was no run-of-the-mill drug dealer, but that federal law made no provision for dispensary operators. "We all felt Mr. Lynch intended well," Meese said. "But under the parameters we were given for the federal law, we didn't have a choice." She added, "it was a tough decision for all of us because the state law and the federal law are at odds."

Lynch had run the dispensary in compliance with state law and with the blessing of local officials in Morro Bay, but after a fruitless, year-long investigation by San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Pat Hedges failed to find any violations of state law, the sheriff invited the DEA to come and raid the dispensary. The DEA did just that last year, and a few months later a federal grand jury indicted him.

Lynch is only the latest of at least six dispensary operators convicted under the federal drug laws, and his dispensary is but one of the dozens raided by the DEA in the last couple of years. With federal juries blocked from hearing about or considering the state's medical marijuana laws by federal judges in those cases, convictions are all but a foregone conclusion.

"This just goes to show the difficulty of getting a fair trial on this in federal court," said Dale Gieringer, head of California NORML. "The feds are batting a thousand when it comes to getting convictions in these cases. You cannot get a fair hearing."

"Charley got steamrolled by the federal government," said San Luis Obispo attorney Lou Koory, who represented Lynch in his dealings with local officials. "It's just not a fair fight when you can't tell the whole story," he said.

"The jury selection process revealed that potential jurors in Los Angeles had major questions about why the feds would be prosecuting someone like Charley when there are several dispensaries operating within walking distance of the courthouse there," Koory pointed out. "Those jurors were dismissed for cause, so we were left with citizens who were apparently not concerned about the federal government's actions in this case and who felt compelled to follow the judge's instructions."

"When you have things like Owen Beck being prevented from testifying, that only escalates the tragedy of this case," said Kris Hermes, spokesman for the medical marijuana defense group Americans for Safe Access. "The jury was not allowed to hear the whole truth in the larger context of the state law," he said.

Hermes was quick to point out that Lynch was not the only victim of the DEA and its local law enforcement collaborators. "When Charles was raided, his was one of the only facilities in the whole region," said Hermes. "Now patients have to go much longer distances, sometimes hundreds of miles, to get their medicine. Not only has this destroyed Charlie's life, it has worsened the lives of hundreds of patients."

With the deck stacked against dispensary operators in these federal prosecutions, activists and advocates are looking for ways to change the status quo. Some involve fighting back against recalcitrant law enforcement officials like Sheriff Hedges, others looks to greater help from state officials, while still others are turning a jaundiced eye on the federal marijuana laws.

At least one of Lynch's patients has filed suit against Hedges, alleging that he violated patients' privacy protections by seizing patient records and violated both her state and federal constitutional rights by doing an end run around state law.

"The sheriff couldn't get a state search warrant, so he calls in the DEA and participates in the raid," said Koory. "In return for serving up Charley on a silver platter, the sheriff got access to all the evidence, including patient records," he explained. "The dispensary was a rock in the sheriff's shoe, so after a year's worth of failed investigation, Sheriff Hedges invited the DEA to come up to Morro Bay and raid the dispensary. That's the real story here."

While the idea of suing sheriffs sounds appealing, it's a long-shot, said Hermes. "They are certainly subject to litigation if someone wants to file a lawsuit against a local official for cooperating with the federal government, but it's a difficult legal challenge," he said. "There is no law that prohibits local law enforcement from cooperating with the feds. What officials like the sheriff are doing is wrongheaded, harmful, and unnecessary, but it will be difficult to win, I think."

In the meantime, said Hermes, there are other avenues to pursue in reining in renegade local officials. "One thing would be to get a pronouncement from Attorney General Jerry Brown directing law enforcement on appropriate conduct around these issues. We're expecting that to happen soon," he said. "Absence of direction from the attorney general has made it easier not only for federal law enforcement to come in and undermine the implementation of state law, but also to make it easier for local law enforcement to help in that effort."

Hermes said that recent state court decisions, including last week's slap-down of San Diego County's challenge to the law (see related story this issue) are also helping define the playing field. "We've had multiple appellate court rulings declaring the state's medical marijuana law is not preempted by federal law, that the two can coexist, and that local law enforcement should be upholding state law and not federal law," he said. "Between these rulings and the pending guidelines from the attorney general, there will be less and less wiggle room for local law enforcement to skirt the law."

There is also the ballot box. Sheriffs are elected officials, and they could be challenged at the voting booth over their medical marijuana misbehavior, but ASA's Hermes couldn't recall a case where someone was either defeated or elected over the issue. "It is certainly an issue to bring up in sheriffs' races," he said. "If there are renegade law enforcement officials trying to skirt state law, we can try to make them feel the political heat."

Still, Hermes predicted that given the state court rulings, the pending guidelines from the attorney general, and new set of faces in Washington next year, the renegade law enforcement problem will probably recede. "If it continues to happen," he said, "there will be a political battle I think public officials will be sorry they got into. I think we will see less and less cooperation between local law enforcement and the feds on this."

A new administration in Washington could make a huge difference, Hermes said. "If we elect Obama, and he follows through on his promise to end federal raids on dispensaries, then we will hopefully see less federal activity here in California."

But the ultimate solution is changing the federal law around marijuana. Legalization, decriminalization, rescheduling marijuana out of Schedule 1, or even passage of the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment, which would cut off funds for federal raids in medical marijuana states, are some of the steps that could be taken.

"We need to see either marijuana rescheduled as something other than Schedule 1, or the US Supreme Court's Raich decision needs to be revisited and overruled. The logic behind that decision -- that medical marijuana grown, distributed, and consumed within California affects interstate commerce -- is a stretch at best," said Koory.

"What we need is a comprehensive federal policy in the US," said Hermes. "Rescheduling or passing Hinchey would be easier than passing either decriminalization or legalization, but we would welcome any of those. We'll be working for a sweeping federal policy that includes rescheduling, further research, and allows for safe access to medical marijuana for patients all across the country."

Until the federal marijuana laws are reformed or eliminated, medical marijuana patients are not safe. Instead, they will be subject to the whims and political proclivities of whoever has hold of the levers of power in Washington.

Click here to watch Drew Carey's video about Charlie Lynch, on Reason TV.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Anonymous (not verified)

I contribute to NORML, MPP, ACLU and others and yet this type of travisty still continues!! When will someone please look at the facts look and the outcome in pain and suffering this war is causing Americans? My theory is the leaders of our country have decided sacraficing our lives means nothing to them! They continue to take PAC money from all of the corporations that feel ending the drug war will adversley effect there bottom line. So the madness goes on the 100 billion is spent yearly. We are arresting non violent drug offenders at the rate of one every 38 seconds and putting them in jail to be victomized by the real bad guys.While millions of Americans take so called legal drugs and wash them down with legal booze. I think we should find someone with enough balls to say this war is a crime against the American way of life and stop this madness. Legalize, regulate, tax, quite putting our sons, daughters, parents and yes even grandparents in jail!! With the rate of one in three black Americans facing jail for Drug War related charges perhaps the blacks will get pissed off enough to say enough is enough stop this race war (look it up) take the 100 billion and provide universal health care for ALL Americans and stop ruining our lives for greed!! I do not advocate anyone take drugs but I will fight for restoring your rights taken away by our so called leaders!! FREEDOM OF CHOICE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Fri, 08/08/2008 - 1:37pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Vote Libertarian... the only party that believes you own yourself... you determine your self-determination... not your criminal gov't !

Obama has Joe Biden, a serious prohibitionist and the 'father of the drug czars office', on his VP short list.

Joe Biden, a prohibitionist criminal, was instrumental in creating the 'drug czar' office... and the violent criminals that perpetuate their propaganda, paranoia, pretense, and pompacity!

Just Say No to Gods & Gov'ts... They Are Always More Harm then Help!

Billy B. Blunt
Tacoma, WA

Fri, 08/08/2008 - 2:21pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Senators Obama and Biden are very much of the "Federal from the top down" system. McCain has for his entire PUBLIC LIFE defended STATES' rights against Federal interference. I know that many enjoyers of good weed prefer Obama's face, policies, and personality to that of the older guy, but on this issue, McCain and ESPECIALLY Palin are on the STATES side of this one. Palin even admits she smoked pot under legal circumstances. Wake up, hippie!!

Mon, 09/01/2008 - 2:39pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Is this not a disgrace and abomination of our jury system? Jury nullification is the obvious solution to abusive enforcement of an unpopular law. Why don't Americans seem to care about their legal rights?

Fri, 08/08/2008 - 1:44pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with the power of jury nullification and wish it were used more often... among other things... like self-defense against home invaders... regardless of costume or pretense!

Q. Why don't Americans seem to care about their legal rights?

A. Americans have become conditioned to obey and serve their coercive masters... the purveyors of gods & gov'ts... under threat of death or incarceration of course... it's the christian way afterall! Many citizens have no idea that their lives, liberties, and freedoms are being threatened... they are too busy paying taxes and trying to make ends meet!

In a nut shell the man that is to busy working for others (paying taxes) is too busy to think for himself... and therefore often relies on others to tell them what to think and how to act!

Just Say NO to Gods & Gov'ts... Always More Harm then Help!

Billy B. Blunt
Tacoma, WA

Fri, 08/08/2008 - 2:50pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Another illegal example of our kangaroo court system... rather than excercising judicial review the jackass judge simply allowed himself to be another government stool... Way to go jester Wu... you fucking criminal asshole! If only 1 of the jurors had the balls to nullify the jury?

Why didn't the Charlie Lynch jurors revolt the same way the Ed Rosenthal jurors did after they found out the defendant was prohibited from defending himself... extremely unconstitutional, illegal, and a violation of human rights... and the judge and prosecuting attorney, not, Mr. Lynch belong in prison.

Just Say No to Gods & Gov'ts... Always more Harm then Help!

Billy B. Blunt
Tacoma, WA

P.S. Time to stop tolerating intolerant criminals and assholes, especiallly the dumb evil assholes at the dea and other rogue narco organizations.

P.P.S. ... and since when did it become wrong for citizens to protect themselves from those that seek to kill or incarcerate those that dare to disagree? Preemptive self-defense is your right... especially against the legions of rogue criminals that have usurped our democracy for their own means!

Fri, 08/08/2008 - 2:07pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Laws must change at the FEDERAL level before any real progress can be made. City, county, state laws contrary to federal law will not be respected by federal authorities. Period. And to think that the political party of the administration in power is supposed to be pro states rights. What a lousy joke. If Senator Obama means what he says regarding ending federal raids on medical marijuana dispensaries then he will get my vote come November. McCain, as well intentioned as he is, will likely keep the current system in place. Therefore he will NOT receive my vote.

If changes must occur at the federal level -- and they must -- Obama is the proper choice for president. And if elected, he must be held accountable. No flip-flopping on this issue, hear that Senator?

Fri, 08/08/2008 - 2:15pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Jury nullification is exactly the way to go!

If you get called for jury duty, you should be happy to serve. Be careful to answer pre-trial questions from the attorneys and judge truthfully, however, do not volunteer any information about your views on the drug war. For the best ways to "truthfully" answer any pre-trial questions and get yourself onto the jury, check out this excellent website, the Fully Informed Jury Association (FIJA) at: http://www.fija.org

Fri, 08/08/2008 - 2:20pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

When I read this article, jury nullification was the first thing I thought of also. Everyone needs to go to the website he/she posted and read and heed. What a bunch of crap that they were not allowed to mention medical marijuana, but if you ever get on a jury, the reins are in your hand, read between the lines jurors.

Fri, 08/08/2008 - 5:04pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

With the recent revelation that the US was granted a patent on certain cannabinoids in 2003, isn't that a de facto admission that cannabis should no longer be a Schedule I substance? And speaking of NORML, MPP and the ACLU, have any of them announced plans to bring a lawsuit to have cannabis rescheduled? If not, why not? Since learning of the above mentioned patent it seems to have fallen out of view. Shouldn't it be waved in the face of every anti-medical cannabis politician?

Fri, 08/08/2008 - 2:55pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

we, individually and collectively, rise up and stop it from happening. If, upon pronouncement of the verdict in the aforementioned trial the citizens of the area had physically surrounded the court house and demanded a retrial, one where ALL evidence could be presented, this madness would be over in a matter of weeks. But at present there are not enough people enraged by these kinds of travesties of justice to make it clear to our elected officials that this kind of railroading will not be tolerated.

Every one of us must push away from our computers and go to city hall, to the state legislators and representative's offices and meet personally with our elected officials and tell them we will no longer stand for these terrible injustices, that we will not tolerate our government's ongoing human rights violations, that we will campaign and vote only for politicians who demonstrate their support by ACTIVE labors to end federal drug prohibition. Letters and emails help, but clearly it is going to take a lot more to unseat the established and entrenched DEA, ONDCP and all those who support drug prohibition and derive federal funding from it. They have billions of dollars to defend their position with. We have millions of people. We can defeat their dollars only if we apply the full political power of each person within our community.

Every time anyone is arrested for cannabis there needs to be a substantial body of concerned citizens present for the trial who are willing to voice their displeasure if injustice is occurring. We need to have people standing outside of every courthouse passing out information about jury nullification and the the horrific injustices and circumventing of our Constitution currently being carried out by judges and court officials, seeking to suppress all juror's knowledge and understanding of the principles of jury nullification as the people's final recourse to unjust laws.

As long as all we do is sit at the computer, read about these things and whine about how bad it is nothing will change. Ten two letter words to live by: "If it is to be it's up to me." Go make something happen today.

Fri, 08/08/2008 - 7:51pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

If Obama is elected I hope he stops the Raids like he said he would.
all we can do is take his word for it. VOTE OBAMA!!

Mccant is all for Business as usual! we do NOT need him!!

Sun, 08/10/2008 - 3:55am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

How many of you pussies still give them YOUR property (pay taxes)?

Sun, 08/10/2008 - 2:01pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

My enemies wear the American flag on their uniforms. They pretend to be defenders of freedom but we know better.

Tue, 08/12/2008 - 8:25pm Permalink

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