Weed Wars

Dispatches from the California Marijuana Front

May 3, 2010
'Shifting positions' on medical pot cited in reduced sentence

One of the most compelling cases pitting California's medical marijuana law vs. federal authority to prosecute medicinal pot unfolded in the coastal town of Morro Bay.

There, Charles Lynch opened a marijuana dispensary called Central Coast Compassionate Caregivers in early 2006. The mayor, City Council members and officials from the local chamber of commerce came out for the ribbon-cutting.

But in 2007, at the behest of the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Department, federal drug agents raided the dispensary. Lynch was arrested on five felony counts, including conspiracy to distribute marijuana and providing marijuana to person under 21.

In 2008, Lynch was convicted on all counts and sentenced to five years in federal prison.

But last week, in a sentencing memo affirming an his earlier decision to cut Lynch's sentence to one year and one day, U.S. District Judge George H. Wu signaled that federal attitudes have changed on medical marijuana. He wrote: "Individuals such as Lynch are caught in the middle of the shifting positions of governmental authority."

Notably, the judge also said he believed that marijuana should be downgraded from its current federal status as a Schedule 1 drug - an illegal substance with no accepted medical use.

While two charges against Lynch stemmed from providing marijuana to a 19-year-old man, the family of another teenage cancer patient testified as character witnesses for the dispensary operator.

Debbie and Steve Beck brought their son Owen, then 17, to the dispensary after a doctor gave the youth a medical pot recommendation to treat nausea from chemotherapy and phantom pain from an amputation.

The case drew wide attention from medical marijuana activists. The story of Lynch and the Beck family was featured in a 10-minute report on Reason.tv that was narrated by actor Drew Carey.

In reducing Lynch's sentence, Judge Wu cited a less antagonistic approach toward state-allowed medical marijuana by the Obama administration and Attorney General Eric Holder than under the Bush administration and former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

He also said Lynch's case "falls outside of the heartland of typical marijuana distribution cases." He noted that the dispensary operator had no criminal record and "the objective of the distribution was...to provide the marijuana for therapeutic reasons to persons with diagnosed medical needs pursuant to California state laws."

The ruling was hailed by Joe Elford, chief counsel for Americans for Safe Access, who had argued for leniency for Lynch.

"Judge Wu's sentencing order...begs the question of why the federal government is still prosecuting medical marijuana cases," Elford said in a statement.

For more on the saga, view the 2008 Reason.tv report below.

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About Weed Wars

Peter Hecht

From its pot fields to politics, California is the epicenter for America's marijuana discussion. This blog covers news, trends and people of the California marijuana story.

Contact reporter Peter Hecht at phecht@sacbee.com

» See the sacbee.com marijuana topics page

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