Pubdate: Tue, 21 Apr 2009
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Page: B - 4
Copyright: 2009 Hearst Communications Inc.
Author: Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer
Cited: California NORML


The Obama administration says it wants the owner of a Central 
California medical marijuana dispensary to be sentenced to at least 
five years in prison, despite his assertion that he was following state law.

Responding to federal judge's query about the case of Charles Lynch, 
former operator of Central Coast Compassionate Caregivers in Morro 
Bay (San Luis Obispo County), a Justice Department official said 
Lynch's prosecution and conviction were "entirely consistent with the 
policies of (the department) and with public statements made by the 
attorney general," Eric Holder.

Holder, citing President Obama's campaign pledge to respect medical 
marijuana laws in California and 12 other states, told reporters 
March 18 that federal agents would arrest only those who violated 
both state and federal law.

He didn't say, however, how his policy would apply to defendants 
awaiting trial or sentencing, or whether the administration would 
defer to local authorities' decision that a marijuana dispensary was 
complying with state law.

The Justice Department's filing late Friday in Lynch's case, its 
first since Holder's comments, did not explain its position. But by 
saying that the prosecution followed the attorney general's policy, 
the department appeared to be asserting that Lynch had been breaking 
state law, even though he was convicted only of violating federal law.

"They're not allowing local politicians, local police departments to 
handle the issue ... of who is violating state law," Reuven Cohen, a 
deputy federal public defender who represents Lynch, said Monday.

He said the Lynch case showed that "the federal government from 
Washington, D.C., ... through its (local) branches will be the arbiter."

Lynch, 47, is scheduled to be sentenced Thursday in Los Angeles for 
distributing marijuana from a dispensary that federal agents raided 
in 2007. The sentencing was postponed for a month after U.S. District 
Judge George Wu noted Holder's recent comments and asked for a 
written statement of the department's prosecution policy.

The new statement is also consistent with comments by the U.S. 
attorney in San Francisco, Joseph Russoniello, that his office will 
target marijuana suppliers and traffickers who violate state as well 
as federal law, even if they hold local operating permits.

Operators of two locally licensed pot dispensaries in Alameda County, 
raided during President George W. Bush's administration, face trial 
on charges filed by Russoniello's office. Advocates say at least two 
dozen defendants in California are in the same situation.

In Lynch's case, federal law requires at least a five-year sentence. 
But Cohen said he would argue that the judge has the authority to 
grant probation, with no prison time, following the example of a San 
Francisco federal judge nearly six years ago in the Ed Rosenthal case.

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer sentenced Rosenthal, a prominent 
marijuana advocate, to a day in jail rather than the five-year 
mandatory minimum in June 2003 for cultivating marijuana. The judge 
said Rosenthal had reasonably believed he was acting legally, as a 
designated supplier for Oakland's medical cannabis program.

Lynch makes a similar claim, saying elected officials and police in 
Morro Bay welcomed his dispensary during the one year of its operation.

Dale Gieringer, California coordinator of the National Organization 
for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said he has photos of the mayor and 
City Council members attending the grand opening in 2006.

The latest court filing shows "business as usual at the Justice 
Department ... tremendous institutional inertia on the side of the 
status quo," Gieringer said.

Prosecutors said in court papers that Lynch had sold $2.1 million in 
marijuana products for profit. "Any 'care' existed only on paper," they said. 
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake