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.