Lynching Charlie Lynch


Charlie Lynch, operator of a medical marijuana dispensary in Morro Bay, California, was arrested in 2007 for violating federal drug laws. The following year, reason commissioned filmmaker Rick Ray, best known for his 2006 film 10 Questions for the Dalai Lama, to put together a short film on the case. He was so inspired by Lynch's story that he wound up spending four years on a full-length documentary. Lynching Charlie Lynch, released on April 20, chronicles this politicized prosecution. Although Lynch strove to comply with state law and was careful to get the approval of local officials, he is now in the process of appealing a one-year sentence in federal prison. reason.tv producer Alex Manning interviewed Ray in April. Check out the rest of the interview at reason.tv.

Q: Did Charlie Lynch deserve to go to jail?

A: Charlie Lynch is a man who was determined to open a dispensary the right way. California allowed medical marijuana dispensaries. He wanted to open one in San Luis Obispo, where there wasn't one [for] 100 miles in any direction. And he got permission to open his dispensary. The city attorney wrote an opinion authorizing it. The mayor blessed it; they had a Chamber of Commerce opening ceremony and ribbon cutting. On some level, because he tried to do this the right way, he ran into trouble. The federal government wanted to make an example of him, to show that there is no right way to do medical marijuana in the United States.

Q: What does this say about the drug war? It's one man's story, but does it apply to the rest of the country? 

A: I became interested in the film because reason.tv hired me to do a short piece about Charlie Lynch. I went up, and the producer said we're going to be meeting someone who runs a medical marijuana dispensary. So in my mind I thought, OK, he's a bit of a stoner, probably; he's kind of a hippie, maybe sort of a free spirit. And Charlie Lynch was a completely different kind of man: the kind of person you would trust babysitting your kids, who looks just like an ordinary businessman. And [he] essentially acts very much like a regular pharmacist, simply wanting to dispense medicine to patients and do it the right way, and do it legally. And so the disconnect was huge. I went into the interview and thought, "Wait a minute, this is Charlie Lynch? He's never had a traffic ticket, he's never violated any law, and here he is about to go to federal prison?"

Charlie Lynch's plight is a small example of the great chasm between the federal government and state law that exists today, especially as regards medical marijuana. The federal government considers this to be a Schedule I substance, the equivalent of heroin and PCP and other serious drugs. There's almost zero tolerance of it being sold or distributed in any sort of storefront or dispensary environment. [But] California has laws that have legitimized marijuana as a medicine. And so for an ordinary businessman like Charlie Lynch, to step into this divide put him at great risk. Anyone who is trying to do this right can easily fall into the chasm between state and federal law. 

Q: What is the current state of medical marijuana? 

A: A lot of us had hope that the Obama administration would come in and the persecution and prosecution of dispensaries in California would be relaxed. In fact, Eric Holder, the attorney general, said that as long as dispensaries were in compliance with state law they would not be harassed by the federal government. But the reality has been that dispensaries continue to be raided. So the current state of medical marijuana is that it is still in that dangerous limbo between state and federal prosecution or permission.