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Morro Bay pot store owner gets 1-year sentence

Charles Lynch, a key figure in the national medical marijuana debate, was convicted last year of illegally possessing more than 100 plants and of distributing more than 100 kilograms of the drug.

June 12, 2009|Scott Glover

The owner of a Morro Bay pot dispensary who emerged as a key figure in the national debate over medical marijuana was sentenced to one year and one day in prison Thursday by a federal judge in Los Angeles, a relatively lenient sentence compared with the five years prosecutors were seeking.

Charles Lynch, 47, dressed in a dark suit, sat with his hands clasped and stared straight ahead as the sentence was imposed by U.S. District Judge George H. Wu. Lynch declined the opportunity to address the court moments earlier.

After court, he told reporters he was "a little bit disappointed" that he had been given prison time.

"I don't think I should be a convicted felon for doing things that the state of California and the city of Morro Bay told me I could do to help people in our area," Lynch said.

Nonetheless, he said he thought Wu "showed a lot of compassion" in opting for the more lenient sentence.

"The government tried to make me the Pablo Escobar of medical marijuana, and the judge saw past that," Lynch said, referring to the Colombian drug lord who ran the Medellin cartel.

Lynch was convicted last summer of illegally possessing more than 100 marijuana plants and of distributing more than 100 kilograms of the drug from his Central Coast Compassionate Caregivers facility in downtown Morro Bay. He was prosecuted despite having the blessing of the city's mayor, city attorney and other civic leaders.

His case was publicized on television and in newspapers nationwide and came to symbolize the tension between conflicting state and federal marijuana laws. Cultivating, using and selling doctor-recommended marijuana is allowed under some circumstances in California and about a dozen other states, but such activities are banned entirely under federal law.

During a two-week trial last summer, Lynch's attorneys attempted to argue that their client provided a service that eased the suffering of chronically ill patients. They were barred from doing so, however, because the Supreme Court has ruled that medical necessity is not a legitimate defense for violating federal drug laws. Lynch also said he relied on the advice of an unnamed Drug Enforcement Administration official who told him he would not be prosecuted if he adhered to state and local laws -- an argument the jury rejected.

Prosecutors, meanwhile, portrayed Lynch as a common drug dealer who profited from his enterprise and hauled around a backpack stuffed with cash. They said he sold more than $2-million worth of the drug between 2006 and 2007. They also said he repeatedly sold to people under 21 -- considered minors under federal law -- and that much of his clientele consisted of seemingly healthy young repeat customers. Lynch was convicted on all five counts he was facing.

Thursday's hearing marked the third time Wu had convened court to impose sentence. He twice postponed the matter after lengthy hearings, in part to consider whether remarks earlier this year by Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. regarding an apparent shift in Department of Justice policy on such prosecutions would have any bearing on Lynch's case. Ultimately, he concluded it did not.

Lynch's lawyers, federal public defenders Reuven Cohen and John Littrell, tried Thursday to persuade Wu to spare their client prison time altogether. Wu allowed the arguments to go on for nearly an hour before telling the lawyers that he'd heard enough.

"As empathetic as I may be to Mr. Lynch's situation, I have to follow the law," Wu said. "I feel I cannot get around the one year."

In imposing the one-year sentence, Wu said he was using a so-called "safety valve" provision to go below the five-year mandatory minimum term called for under federal sentencing guidelines. The safety valve is intended to ensure that nonviolent offenders with very minor or no previous criminal records and who are not the leaders or organizers of a criminal organization do not receive unduly harsh punishments.

Lynch has no record and was convicted of a nonviolent offense. The only factor at issue was whether he was a leader or organizer of a criminal organization.

Prosecutors argued he was; the defense insisted he wasn't.

Wu sided with the defense but would not specify why he felt Lynch was deserving of the safety valve relief.

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scott.glover@latimes.com

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