Medical marijuana charges pit Californians against DEA
Joe Byrne
Published: Saturday March 14, 2009

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Charlie Lynch had a medical marijuana dispensary in Morro Bay, on the coast of California. Though he had yet to repay the loan he had taken out to open his business, and was working six days a week against the public opposition of the Morro Bay sheriff's department, he liked his job. He stopped liking his job when the DEA raided his home and arrested him for selling marijuana, a federal crime punishable with years of prison time. Last night, ABC's 20/20 with John Stossel featured Charlie Lynch in a report on marijuana advocacy.

He had closely obeyed all the state law associated with opening a marijuana dispensary. There was a public ribbon-cutting ceremony on opening day, and he had even called the DEA to make sure they weren't going to raid him. “It’s up to the cities and county to decide how to handle the matter,” they had told him. With that advice, he thought his store was in the clear. Now, he faces a federal trial and lengthy jail time.

Prop 215, or the Compassionate Use Act of '96, established California as the first state in the union to allow medical bud, and received more votes than any other question on the ballot. The act gave “seriously ill Californians” the right to obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes under the discretion of a doctor. Senate Bill 420, in 2004, re-enforced the state's right to allow medical marijuana.

However, federal law is a separate jurisdiction, and still applies to those who 'legally' grow for themselves. Congress or the U.S. attorney general has the power to reclassify marijuana so it can be dispensed by a physician. Alternatively, the U.S. Department of Justice could use its discretion and stop prosecuting medical dispensation and use in states that have legalized it. But it has not. The DEA has been actively shutting down bud dispensaries with their legal growing operations and prosecuting Californians in federal court. In the last two years of the Bush administration, the DEA raided over 100 medical marijuana growers and sellers.

Since the passing of the Compassionate Use Act, 11 other states have followed suit with medical marijuana laws. Nowhere is it as popular or common as California, but Oregon is proposing selling and taxing its own marijuana, and last year Massachusetts voted 65% to make the possession of an ounce of bud equivalent to driving over the speed limit.

Charlie Lynch, a 46-year-old businessman, opened Central Coast Compassionate Caregivers in the spring of 2006 with the blessing of the town mayor. The shop, located in the heart of the downtown shopping district, provided more than 200 lbs. of bud to more than 2000 patients over the course of 11 months. Owen Beck, a 17-year-old amputee with bone cancer, often got his marijuana for free because Lynch was “a compassionate kind of guy,” according to the boy's father.

On ABC's 20/20 with John Stossel, Charlie Lynch described the night he was arrested at his home. “I hear the banging on my front door, and they say, 'Search warrant, open up or we're going to tear it down.' I opened the door and 10-15 agents with shields, bulletproof vests, masks, guns...they came barreling in...threw me on the of the agents had a gun to the back of my head,” Charlie said. This was the third time the DEA had raided Charlie, and this time they didn't just take his money and marijuana. Local Sheriff Pat Hedges, who had opposed the opening of Charlie's store, assisted the DEA with their arrests, even though Charlie was in violation of no state law. After a trial that depicted him as a 'cynical entrepreneur' making a heavy profit, He was found guilty of 5 cannabis-only federal felonies. His sentencing is set for March 23.

With the arrival of a new administration, some are wondering if the DEA raids are done for now. At least 4 dispensaries in California have been raided since Obama took office, but the White House said it expects the raids to stop once Obama nominates someone to replace Michele Leonhart, Bush's DEA administrator. However, the economic crisis has stalled much of Obama's work on nominations, and marijuana advocates wait for the change that the White House is predicting.

Lynch's case has become national news. Charlie Lynch and the 17-year-old cancer patient appeared in an episode of Drew Carey's '', and MSNBC's Al Roker interviewed Charlie for "An Hour on Marijuana". The popularity of Lynch's trial in the media shows that politicians aren't the only ones who are re-considering how we think about marijuana in our country.

The 20/20 interview with Charlie Lynch can be found here.

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