Drug War

How Charlie Lynch Got a One-Year Sentence for a Crime That Injured No One


Last June, U.S. District Judge George Wu sentenced Charlie Lynch, former operator of a medical marijuana dispensary in Morro Bay, California, to one year and one day in prison. Yesterday Wu finally released the memo (PDF) that explains the reasoning behind the sentence. It shows a judge bending over backward to mitigate what he plainly thought was an unjust punishment for a man who strove to comply with state laws allowing patients to use cannabis as a medicine.

To declare Lynch eligible for the "safety valve" provision that let him escape a mandatory five-year sentence, Wu had to conclude that the defendant did not qualify as an "an organizer, leader, manager, or supervisor of others in the offense," despite the fact that Lynch founded Central Coast Compassionate Caregivers and ran it for a year, employing others to help supply marijuana to patients. Wu reasoned that the rationale for making leaders ineligible for the safety valve is that they generally pose a greater threat to the public than underlings or solitary offenders do, which was not true in this case. "Although Lynch did put together CCCC's operations, which had about ten employees," Wu writes, "given the way he ran the CCCC, Lynch did not present any great danger to the public and certainly no greater danger than any of his fellow participants in the CCCC."

And what was "the way he ran the CCCC"? Wu explains:

There can be no doubt that the present case falls outside of the heartland of typical marijuana distribution cases for a number of very obvious reasons including, but not limited to: 1) the passage of California's CUA [Compassionate Use Act] and MMPA [Medical Marijuana Program Act], which decriminalized the cultivation, possession and distribution of marijuana under state law to the extent and for the purposes described in those laws; 2) the objective of the distribution here was (at least in primary part, if not in total) to provide the marijuana for therapeutic reasons to persons with diagnosed medical needs pursuant to California state laws; 3) the Defendant's notifying governmental authorities (including certain law enforcement agencies) of his plans/activities prior to engaging in them; 4) the Defendant's operating publicly in an obvious and known location; 5) the extensive steps which Defendant took to minimize the criminal aspects of the CCCC ( by getting a business license for the marijuana distribution from the City of Morro Bay); and 6) the Defendant's maintaining copious records which completely delineated the details and extent of CCCC's operations, including the names and addresses of its vendors and customers, the amounts of marijuana purchased/distributed, etc.

Still, these factors could not get Lynch out of a one-year statutory minimum for providing more than five grams of marijuana to someone younger than 21 (as some of the patients served by CCCC were). Wu applied that sentence to each of the five counts on which Lynch was convicted but made the terms concurrent. Lynch is free pending an appeal.

From the facts described in Wu's memo, it is not at all clear that Lynch's operation violated state law, as the Justice Department claimed when it said prosecuting him was consistent with its new policy of restraint regarding medical marijuana providers. First, CCCC members designated the dispensary as their "primary caregiver," a status that allows one to grow and possess marijuana intended for a patient, and this was before the 2008 California Supreme Court ruling that said supplying marijuana was not enough to qualify for that label. Second, since Lynch himself was a patient with a doctor's recommendation, as were most of his employees, the operation arguably qualified as a patient collective/cooperative, with the members who did not work there paying to cover expenses instead, as permitted by California Attorney General Jerry Brown's guidelines for dispensaries. The guidelines also say dispensaries should not turn a profit, and Lynch said he never did, a claim the government's evidence did not contradict.

In addition to illustrating the unreliability of the president's promise to stop interfering with medical marijuana laws, Wu's memo underlines the general injustice of the drug laws, noting that "there was no evidence that anyone ever suffered any injury of any sort as a result of Lynch's running the CCCC." Wu concludes that "individuals such as Lynch are caught in the middle of the shifting positions of governmental authorities," and "much of the problems could be ameliorated…by the reclassification of marijuana from Schedule I," which would allow doctors to prescribe it. That step is by no means sufficient to address the injustice of punishing people for crimes that do not injure anyone, but it would be a start.

More on the Lynch case (including Reason.tv coverage) here. His supporters have a website here. Brian Doherty recently considered the ambiguities of California's medical marijuana laws in his Reason cover story about L.A.'s dispensaries.

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  1. Reclassification would be far, far too simple a solution.

  2. Reclassification around the time of the Marc Rich pardon would have solved approximately a kabillion problems.

  3. How can anyone can read this story about a mother who gives her autistic son Pot and NOT believe that at the very least it needs to be allowed as a prescription drug for those who need it?

    This is another chink in the armor of the drug war. Guys like Lynch are being jailed for trying to help people relieve their ailments with doctor approval. It’s the height of insanity that this is illegal.

    1. That is child abuse, she should be reported to CPS. There are safer drugs available by prescription.

      1. Do you know anyone in Rhode Island? You or someone you know could drop the dime on a struggling mom and a suffering child.

        Maybe you’d even feel good about yourself.

        The ensuing prosecutionpersecution would be fascinating.

      2. Steve,

        Name the drugs please. If you read the article, the family went through a litany of drugs with horrible side-effects. Marijuana has few bad side-effects compared to many other drugs that they tried. Please enlighten us with your experience and knowledge. Contradict the researchers and physicians who claim otherwise.

        1. He’s either a troll or a parody. Either way, don’t feed.

  4. No alt-text on that mug? Is it time for an alt-text contest?!

  5. Why is the illegal California law at issue?Mr Lynch is a Federal criminal.

    1. The same reason Jim Crow laws were at issue. Because they were unjust, unfair, and punitive. Because there is no reason other than moralizing that marijuana is not as legal as alcohol and tobacco. And because just maybe it’s high time for the federal government to stop making things illegal that should be covered by state statute and quite clearly are not “interstate commerce”.

      1. Huh! Huh! Huh!

        You said “high”.

        /Hey, something made me recall that abomination the other day. I just thought I’d pass on the favor.

        1. Beavis and Butthead rule! Still!

  6. Only repeal of the law that illegalized marijuana can end this.

    1. I thought that it was pot being Scheduled by the FDA that made it illegal to possess, not a specific state law.

  7. the unreliability of the president’s promise to stop interfering with medical marijuana laws

    Is that the same president who claims to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time? Because he really seems able to do only one thing at a time. He just finished health “reform” and now he’s campaigning again. Marijuana reform is #845 on his list.

    1. Despite it being the number one item on the online questions he was asked.

      I would love to ask Obama how much time he thinks he should serve for violating this country’s laws against cocaine use.

      And I have no doubt that Charlie Lynch would be a better president than Obama.

      1. My parents’ weird puppy would be a better president than Obama.

  8. I used the WOD to explain my belief that there is only one party in our political system. I want to vote for the candidate from the party that wants to end or, for fucks sake, at least throttle back the WOD.

    We need a second political party in this country.

    … Hobbit

  9. At Nuremberg judges were convicted for following unjust laws.

    1. In that case, Judge Wu would clearly deserve only the mandatory minimum sentence plus a day. Is there a mandatory minimum sentence for “just following orders”?

      I lived in Morro Bay for several years, but never encountered Charlie Lynch. On my next trip back to revisit the old stomping grounds, I think I will look him up and shake his hand. If there’s a Charlie Lynch expense fund I might even kick down a few bucks. The guy’s a hero and it is high time people of his sensibilities ran things and people of drug warrior sensibilities hang their heads in shame, looking in from the outside.

      1. Is there a mandatory minimum sentence for “just following orders”?

        That should depend on just what the orders are. “Judge” Wu is a criminal, and Charlie Lynch is an innocent political prisoner in my book.


      2. So, seriously, what happens if a judge says “fuck this noise” and refuses to follow a “minimum sentence guideline”? Like, what actual consequence do they face for doing that?

    2. I’ve said this before, but I don’t doubt that in a couple hundred years, people will view the War on Drugs the same way they now regard the Spanish Inquisition.

      1. Nah. People had to expect the WoSD after alcohol prohibition. While NOONE expects the Spanish Inquisition.

        Aside from that nitpick, its a great comparison.

        1. The WoDs started before prohibition: 1914

        2. Their chief weapon is the DEA…the DEA and surprise. Their TWO chief weapons are the DEA, surprise, and an almost fanatical devotion to the WOD. Their THREE chief weapons are the DEA, surprise, an almost fanatical devotion to the WOD, and the ability to charge people in Federal Court…I’ll come in again.

  10. So, he didn’t break the (state) law and he “did not present any great danger to the public”. 1 year in jail.

    Thank GOD for federal laws!!! Now, where’s my gun….

  11. It’s time to change the name from War on Drugs to War on Citizens.

    1. For decades ..when they saw how much money and how inaffecetive the War on Drugs was they accepted and perpetuated this war on the citizenery who snort or smoke their dope instead of drinking their dope like “they” (the authorities) do.

      We are as close to Salem witch persucutions as we can possibly be in the 21st century..and it’s name ? The War on Drugs.

  12. OUr kangaroo courts at their finest LOL


    1. There’s nothing funny here, bot.

  13. To his credit, Wu DID seem to put quite a bit of effort into minimizing the penalty that the Feds insist Lynch face.

    1. Yes, yes, and to Obama’s credit he hasn’t proposed confiscating all of my money.

  14. I so hope California legalizes pot this fall. A truly Bunyanesque middle finger to the moralist morons in DC. Even with taxation and regulation, it will be so worth it.

  15. If we legalize Marijuana why not legalize Heroin or cocaine?

    1. That’s next. And it’s about time.


    2. Congress scientifically determined in the 1930’s that marijuana was a dangerous drug that needed to be banned for public safety. Who do we think we are to disagree with the experts.

      1. I like you, you’re funny.

        OK, not really.

    3. My God I hope not.

  16. Sorry, I’m not willing to give Wu a pass here. He prevented Lynch from presenting a defense by ordering him not to mention the fact that he was licensed by the state and city where he was operating. Lynch is a political prisoner, and Wu is a disgrace to his office.


    1. That was irrelevant to the federal statute he was convicted on.

      1. But it is relevant to whether Wu should be given any credit for minimizing the jail sentence. He should not.

  17. I’m sure Obama will pardon him.

    1. Yep, any minute now…

    2. The fact that he hasn’t is solid proof that Obama is not the least bit serious about his claims to want to relax the war on drugs.

  18. If people could read, they might notice that the federal government has no punishment authority in this area. Go back read Article I, Section 8 about a dozen times. MAYBE, just maybe if your brain is not too addled, you may see the light.

    And while you are at it, note that there are only 5 areas where the feds are authorized to use “police” power.

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