In a closely watched trial involving conflicting marijuana laws, a jury on Tuesday convicted the owner of a Morro Bay medical marijuana dispensary on five counts of violating federal drug laws.
Charles Lynch, 46, was found guilty of distributing more than 100 kilos of marijuana, some of it to people considered minors under federal law.
Lynch, flanked by his defense attorneys, hung his head and grimaced as the verdicts were read in a Los Angeles courtroom. He could be sentenced to a minimum of five years in federal prison or as many as 85.
Cultivating, using and selling doctor-prescribed medical marijuana are allowed in some instances under California law. But they are outlawed entirely under federal law, which supersedes those of the states.
Lynch's lawyers told jurors that their client had the blessing of elected officials in Morro Bay before opening his Central Coast Compassionate Caregivers, and they argued that he was he was told by a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration official that he would avoid prosecution as long as he obeyed local laws.
But jurors rejected that argument.
Kitty Meese, the jury forewoman, said the panel concluded it would have made no sense for a DEA official to give such advice.
"I think all of us sometimes choose to hear what we want to hear," said Meese, a registered nurse from Torrance.
Meese said jurors had a clear sense that Lynch was not an ordinary street-corner drug dealer, but the fact that he was dispensing medical marijuana didn't matter under federal law.
"We all felt Mr. Lynch intended well," Meese said. "But under the parameters we were given for the federal law, we didn't have a choice."
She added, "it was a tough decision for all of us because the state law and the federal law are at odds."
Deputy Federal Public Defender John Littrell, one of Lynch's lawyers, said the case was tough to defend because the judge ruled that Lynch's reliance on state laws that permitted medical marijuana was irrelevant.
At one point, Littrell and co-counsel Reuven Cohen attempted to elicit testimony from Owen Beck, who was a teenager when he was diagnosed with bone cancer and began visiting Lynch with his parents to receive marijuana prescribed by his oncologist at Stanford University.
Beck was supposedly going to testify about Lynch's character, but as soon as his illness came up he was cut short by U.S. District Judge George Wu.
"Virtually none of the evidence we wanted to present was presented," Littrell said. "In that sense, it's not that surprising that the jury came to the decision it did."
Prosecutors David Kowal and Rasha Gerges sought to portray Lynch as a common drug dealer who flouted federal law by selling about $2 million worth of marijuana from the time he opened his dispensary in spring 2006 until it was raided last year.
They told jurors he sold drugs to young people "not yet old enough to legally drink" and carried around his proceeds in a backpack stuffed with cash.
"We're pleased with the fact that the jury followed the law," Gerges said. "And they came to the right result."
Littrell said he and Cohen would appeal Lynch's conviction. Lynch is scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 20.