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Marijuana dispensary owner's trial goes to the jury

His defense calls a U.S. agent's alleged advice a form of entrapment.

August 05, 2008|Scott Glover | Times Staff Writer

A closely watched trial involving conflicting marijuana laws went to a federal court jury Monday, with jurors asked to determine if the owner of a Morro Bay pot dispensary is guilty of violating federal drug laws.

During a week-and-a-half-long trial in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, federal prosecutors sought to depict Charles Lynch, the owner of the dispensary, as a common drug dealer who sold pot to teenagers and carried a backpack stuffed with cash.

Lynch is charged with distributing marijuana, conspiring to distribute marijuana and providing marijuana to people under the age of 21.

He faces a minimum of five years in federal prison if convicted.

Lynch's defense attorneys sought to portray him as a responsible businessman who had the blessing of Morro Bay's mayor and city attorney before opening his Central Coast Compassionate Caregivers.

Moreover, they argued, he was told by an official with the Drug Enforcement Administration that enforcement on such facilities would be left up to local authorities, implying that Lynch would avoid federal prosecution if he obeyed the local laws.

That became the basis for their defense, known as entrapment by estoppel, in which a defendant essentially argues that he broke the law based on bad advice from a government official.

Prosecutors scoffed at the argument. They called to the witness stand a DEA agent who they said spoke with Lynch, and she said she never would have given him such advice.

The cultivation, use and sale of doctor-prescribed marijuana is allowed in some instances under California law.

But the drug is banned altogether under federal law, which supersedes those of the states.

The U.S. Supreme Court has prohibited defendants from mounting a "medical necessity" defense, so Lynch's lawyers did not elicit testimony from patients or their parents.

During the trial in front of U.S. District Judge George Wu, prosecutors focused on Lynch's marijuana sales, which they said generated about $2 million from the time he opened his doors in spring 2006 until he was raided by federal agents about 11 months later.

They called undercover operatives who bought drugs from the facility and sheriff's deputies and DEA agents who participated in the raid.

Following two days of often dry testimony, Deputy Federal Public Defender Reuven Cohen called Lynch to the witness stand.

"Mr. Lynch, did you have some marijuana in that marijuana dispensary of yours?" he asked.

"Yes," Lynch replied, drawing laughs from supporters.

That Lynch allegedly believed he was operating under California law is not a permitted defense.

But his attorneys did present testimony from the mayor and city attorney of Morro Bay, both of whom described him as a law-abiding citizen.

"In my dealings with him, he followed all the rules," City Atty. Robert Schultz said.

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scott.glover@latimes.com

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