Friday, April 24, 2009

Lynch could get Jail term


LOS ANGELES -- Government lawyers asked a federal judge on Thursday
to impose a five-year sentence on the owner of a marijuana
dispensary, less than a month after Attorney General Eric H. Holder
Jr. announced that federal authorities would not prosecute owners of
medical marijuana shops if they complied with local and state laws.

But the United States attorney for the Central District of
California, Thomas P. O'Brien, argued that the dispensary owner,
Charles C. Lynch, had broken state laws because he was not a primary
caregiver to his customers -- a requirement under California law --
and provided no medical services beyond the sale of marijuana.

Judge George H. Wu, a Bush appointee who is hearing his first federal
case, postponed sentencing until June 11, by which time he will
receive final briefings from government and defense lawyers. Judge Wu
seemed inclined at times Thursday to hand down a lighter sentence
than the government was seeking but repeatedly said he was
constrained by federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

Mr. Lynch, who ran a small dispensary in the surfing hamlet of Morro
Bay, has become a symbol for the medical marijuana movement since his
shop was raided in 2007. A registered business owner, Mr. Lynch has
the support of the city's mayor and the city attorney, both of whom
testified on his behalf Thursday.

Medical marijuana advocates see the case as a test of the Obama
administration's policy of noninterference on state marijuana laws.
California is among 13 states that allow the cultivation and sale of
marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Mr. O'Brien said Mr. Lynch's dispensary attracted illicit marijuana
sales that took place near the business and involved employees and
customers. Prosecution documents said Mr. Lynch's dispensary had "a
casual, almost carnival-like attitude towards the use and
distribution of marijuana."

Mr. Lynch's lawyer, Reuven Cohen, said his client paid taxes and
followed California laws. Mr. Cohen argued that if the federal
government believed that Mr. Lynch had broken California laws,
prosecutors should have consented to have the case moved to state court.

"This is really a states' rights issue," said Mr. Cohen, referring to
Proposition 215, which legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes.
"We voted for this stuff, and for the federal government to do this
is undemocratic."

Mr. Lynch was convicted on five counts related to running a marijuana
dispensary, which is illegal under federal law, and selling medical
marijuana to customers under 21, who are minors under federal law.

The director of the Executive Office for United States Attorneys, H.
Marshall Jarrett, sent a letter last Friday to Mr. O'Brien guiding
him to seek a five-year sentence. Mr. Jarrett was the chief of the
Justice Department's ethics office until Mr. Holder replaced him
after accusations of prosecutorial misconduct in the corruption case
against former Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska.

Justice Department officials did not respond to an interview request Thursday.

Since the passage of Proposition 215 in 1996, more than 100 marijuana
dispensaries in California have been raided, virtually wiping out the
businesses in some places, like San Diego. But in other cities,
including Los Angeles and San Francisco, the shops have flourished,
despite occasional federal crackdowns during the Bush administration.

Kris Hermes, a spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, a national
medical marijuana advocacy group, said that about half of the raids
resulted in prosecutions and that about a dozen owners received
prison sentences.

Mr. Lynch said in a telephone interview that he would appeal his
conviction and accused Sheriff Patrick Hedges of San Luis Obispo
County of overzealous prosecution of the law.

"The local sheriff wanted to shut me down," Mr. Lynch said, "and I
don't think they appreciated me putting up a fight."

The sheriff's office did not respond to an interview request.

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