June 11, 2009 -- If the voters in your state say it's OK to do something, is it?
Charlie Lynch was sentenced today to one year and one day in federal prison for running a medical marijuana dispensary, even though voters in the state of California had legalized medical marijuana.
U.S. District Court Judge George H. Wu handed down the sentence today at the Federal Courthouse in Los Angeles.
Lynch had faced five to 100 years, under sentencing guidelines. Wu said he saw no way around imposing a sentence of at least one year, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Although the Obama administration recently announced it would stop raiding marijuana dispensaries in states that allow medical marijuana, it declined to intervene in the Lynch case. In a statement released in April, the Justice Department called Lynch's conviction "entirely consistent with the policies of DOJ and with public statements made by the attorney general."
Lynch wasn't dealing drugs in back alleys. He thought he was operating within the law. He had applied for a business license, joined the chamber of commerce, consulted with attorneys and called the DEA before opening his medical marijuana dispensary. Lynch even held a ribbon-cutting ceremony that was attended by city councilmen and the town mayor.
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.
The Benefits of Medical Marijuana
Medical marijuana helped teenager Owen Beck, of Morro Bay, Calif., when his leg was amputated to stop the spread of a cancerous tumor. Beck 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.
Hauled Into Court
"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. San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Pat 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. In March 2007, federal authorities raided his home and small business in southern California.
"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.
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.
Charlie Lynch: It Just Seems So Unfair
"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."
Lynch was convicted and sentenced to one year and one day in prison.
"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."