Morro Bay medical marijuana dispenser Charles Lynch was found guilty by a Los Angeles Federal Court jury Aug. 5 for five counts of violating federal drug laws in a trial that stirred controversy.
Lynch, 46, who will be sentenced Oct. 20, could face a mandatory minimum of five years or up to a maximum of 85 years in federal prison for possession with the intent to distribute, criminal conspiracy, maintaining a drug house and two counts of selling to people younger than 21, considered minors under federal law, an offense that carries a sentencing enhancement.
Although growing and selling marijuana for medical reasons is allowed in some cases under California law, it is illegal to possess or distribute any marijuana under federal law, which overrules state laws.
Although 55 percent of California voters said yes to Proposition 215, or the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, to allow those with doctor's recommendations to use medical marijuana, federal authorities can currently shut down dispensaries even after the city has approved them, something that has been happening all over California.
"The federal government has sent letters to property owners explaining that if their property is being used as a medical marijuana dispensary, it can be seized under federal law," Morro Bay City Attorney Rob Schultz said.
"There are hundreds of them in San Francisco and in Oakland and why they picked on Morro Bay is anybody's guess. There's the theory that Sheriff Pat Hedges is completely against them and did what he could topursue closing this one down and prosecuting (Lynch)."
"It has nothing to do with whether I like it or not; they're still illegal," Hedges said in response.
He said it is illegal under federal law to have a retail store selling marijuana, and Lynch "would have had to create a co-op type of situation where there are members and they covered costs and expenses" to avoid prosecution. "You cannot do it for a profit and he was doing it for a profit," he said.
Those who are sick and get a recommendation from a doctor can grow and/or possess marijuana but stores can't sell it for retail, Hedges said.
Lynch, who was a member of Morro Bay's Chamber of Commerce, opened Central Coast Compassionate Caregivers with the blessing of Schultz and Morro Bay Mayor Janice Peters in 2006, both of whom were subpoenaed to testify at Lynch's trial.
"It's just unfortunate that we have this discrepancy between the state and federal laws," Peters said. "Unfortunately, Charlie is kind of the victim of that discrepancyIf the federal courts are going to give the states the right to make their own decisions on these issues, then they have to give us that right to continue with that."
In March 2007, the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which had been monitoring the dispensary for the 11 months it was open, arrested Lynch and raided his home, finding records of the dispensary's profits and a backpack with $27,000.
"The (sheriff's department) basically paid money to people who are criminals to go in and pretend they had an illness and buy marijuana," said John Littrell, one of Lynch's attorneys.
Lynch's Executive Secretary Gina Armstrong was working the day authorities came to the facility.
"They couldn't really get anything on us until they decided to take the sheriff and get a fake ID and after that we were raided," Armstrong said. "They just came in like robbers and told us to get on the ground with their guns on us and all the San Luis Obispo County sheriffs had masks on just like it was a robbery."
Armstrong claimed that one of te narcotics officers harassed the store employees the day after Lynch was arrested.
"He left a note on my desk that said 'All hippies die,'" Armstrong alleged. "He came in his plain clothes the next day driving around the dispensary, while we were picking up the pieces, laughing at us and pointing."
Rob Bryn, Public Information Officer for the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Department, said the members of the sheriff's department involved followed normal investigative procedures.
"I'm not going to give credence to any remarks of that kind," Bryn said of Armstrong's allegations. "I don't believe any of that at all."
During the trial, U.S. District Judge George Wu asked all involved to refrain from using the words "medical marijuana" because federal law does not accept the term.
Wu also struck 17-year old witness Owen Beck's testimony from the record. Beck, a high school football and soccer player who lost his leg to bone cancer, went to Lynch's dispensary for medical marijuana when a Stanford oncologist recommended he try medical marijuana to lessen his pain after other medications affected him poorly.
"The government actually made a motion to preclude us from bringing witnesses to court that looked ill," Littrell said. "Their theory was that it would prejudice the jury. The fact that (Lynch) had permission from the city and the fact that he was helping sick people, that was all irrelevant."
The essence of Lynch's defense was entrapment by estoppel, an affirmative defense that can be utilitzed when a government official has misled the defendant into thinking that his or her actions are legal when in fact they can be considered illegal, thus putting him or her in a position to be prosecuted.
"Charles contactedthe DEA and they told him they were going to leave it up to the city and state to decide this issue," Schultz said. "So his theory is that it was entrapment (because) he relied on information supplied by government agents and that's why he opened up the dispensary."
The prosecuting attorneys rejected the defense, criticizing Lynch for not presenting names and titles of the DEA officials he said he spoke with.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Assistant U.S. Attorney David P. Kowal told jurors that records found in Lynch's home showed that he had distributed more than 100 kilos of marijuana worth about $2.1 million and had sold marijuana to more than 2,000 people. Two hundred and fifty of them were under 21.
"We are pleased with the jury's verdict," said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Los Angeles. "We believe that they followed the law as instructed by the judge in the case."
Lynch is currently out on bail but remains under house arrest until his sentencing. His attorneys have said they will seek an appeal once he is sentenced.