Jail for Selling Medical Marijuana

John Stossel examines a situation where federal government trumps state law.

ByJohn Stossel and Andrew Sullivan
March 09, 2009, 3:32 PM

March 10, 2009— -- If the voters in your state say it's OK to do something, is it?

Apparently not.

Charlie Lynch learned that the hard way, when federal authorities raided his home and small business in southern California in March 2007.

"I hear the banging of my front door," Lynch recalled. "I opened the door and about 10 to 15 agents with shields, bullet-proof vests, guns, masks, they came barreling in."

Drug Enforcement Administration agents seized 30 pounds of marijuana from Lynch's business. The action wasn't a surprise to San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Pat Hedges, who had been investigating Lynch for about a year.

What tipped the sheriff off to Lynch's operation? It may have been the ribbon-cutting ceremony that Lynch held when he started selling marijuana.

Lynch wasn't dealing drugs in back alleys. He was selling medical marijuana. He had applied for a business license, joined the Chamber of Commerce, consulted with attorneys and even called the DEA before opening his medical marijuana dispensary.

Thirteen states, including California, allow patients to use marijuana for medicinal use, and Lynch was selling marijuana to patients whose doctors had recommended the drug. Hundreds of dispensaries across California have helped thousands of patients to access medical marijuana.

Singer Melissa Etheridge, now 47, was one of those patients. When she was diagnosed with cancer about five years ago, she underwent intensive rounds of chemo.

"It's like putting acid in your body," Etheridge said of the treatment. "You lose your hair, you have absolutely no strength."

With the chemo treatments came the side effects, and the drugs that doctors prescribed Melissa to treat them caused more side effects.

"Take the one drug for pain, it has the side effect of, it makes you constipated," Etheridge said. "So then you have to take the drug that helps you not be constipated. But that drug, that's going to make you get diarrhea, and so you have to take another drug to combat the side effects of that."

Etheridge chose to use marijuana instead, and found that the drug helped her.

"When it comes to the medicinal use of this herb, it is nothing about getting high," Etheridge said. "You're not getting high. You are trying to get to a place of normal."

The Benefits of Medical Marijuana

Medical marijuana also helped teenager Owen Beck, of Morro Bay, Calif., when his leg was amputated to stop the spread of a cancerous tumor. Beck, like Etheridge, found that chemo's effects were devastating and the traditional medications didn't help.

"It destroys your appetite," Beck said of the chemo, "and whatever you can eat, you throw up."

His mother Debbie Beck said, "All those pills that we had, nothing was helping him."

So, Beck tried medical marijuana, purchased from the dispensary run by Lynch.

"With the marijuana, you know, I could do what I needed to do during the day and just not be in pain," Beck said. "I could be comfortable."

Beck and his parents were thankful for the service that Lynch provided.

"I've always thought Charlie Lynch was, you know, the nicest guy in the world," Beck said. "He would always treat us with a lot of respect."

But not everyone liked Lynch's dispensary. Hedges had spoken out in public meetings against medical marijuana dispensaries. After Lynch opened his business, Hedges sent officers to stake out the facility.

"They sent in undercover sheriff's deputies to go encourage Charlie to break the federal law," Lynch's lawyer, John Littrell, said. "In every case, what they found was that his employees always verified doctor's recommendations. No one could manage to get anybody, Charlie or anyone that Charlie was working with, to dispense marijuana in a way that violated state law."

After a year, the sheriff handed information over to the federal government's DEA that Lynch had been selling marijuana. Even though California allows medical marijuana, federal law classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 narcotic -- the same as heroin. Under federal law, Lynch was no different from a common drug dealer.

"Marijuana, under federal law, is a more serious narcotic than crack cocaine," said Reuven Cohen, another of Lynch's lawyers.

Lynch was hauled into federal court, which meant that his attorneys could not even mention the state law that permits the use of medical marijuana. They also weren't allowed to mention that Lynch's dispensary had helped people like Beck.

Facing 100 Years in Prison

"It's complete bulls---, but it's the bulls--- that we live in," Cohen said.

Lynch was convicted and faces up to 100 years in federal prison.

"It just seems so unfair what they've done to me," Lynch said. "They put the fear of 'gov,' I call that instead of the fear of God, fear of government into people."

The DEA has raided five other medical marijuana dispensaries in California and Nevada this year, despite the various laws that legalized the substance for medical use at the state level.

But the Obama administration recently announced it would stop raiding marijuana dispensaries in states that allow medical marijuana, which is no help to Lynch. His sentencing is now set for March 23.

"They don't come down on the state legislatures that gave us these laws," Lynch said. "They don't come down on the city officials that let me operate the dispensary. They come down on the little guy. Me."

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