WASHINGTON — After California legalized medical marijuana, Charles Lynch opened his cannabis dispensary nearly two years ago in Morro Bay, getting a license from the city and joining the chamber of commerce. Even the mayor showed up for the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
A year later, U.S. drug enforcement agents raided his business. Now Lynch is worried that he'll get at least five years in prison when he's sentenced Monday in federal court in Los Angeles on five counts of distributing marijuana.
Whatever happens, Lynch said, he'll appeal. "I don't feel like I deserve going through life as a convicted felon for doing things the state of California allowed me to do," he said.
However, the nation's medical marijuana users are breathing a little more easily these days, confident that such stories soon will be a thing of the past.
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At news conferences last month and again last Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder said that there'd be no more federal prosecutions of cases involving medical cannabis dispensaries. He said they'd be left alone as long as they were complying with state laws.
Medical marijuana advocates predict that the issue soon will leave the public realm of politics and become a private issue between doctors and patients. They also said that President Barack Obama had kept a promise that he made on the campaign trail last year.
Holder said the new policy would be "to go after those who violate both federal and state law."
"To the extent that people do that, and try and use medical marijuana laws for activity that is not designed to comport with what the intention was of a state law, those are the organizations or people who we'll target," Holder said Wednesday. "And that's consistent with what the president said during the campaign."
The decision affects California and 12 other states that have legalized marijuana for medical purposes: Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington state.
Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., who lobbied the new administration on the issue, called it "a welcomed shift" in federal policy, charging that the administration of George W. Bush "foolishly wasted precious federal resources" to prosecute law-abiding health-care providers.
"This new policy makes sense and is far more humane," said Capps, the new vice chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health.
Holder said that his department had limited resources and that its focus would be on people and organizations that were growing or cultivating "substantial amounts of marijuana and doing so in a way that's inconsistent with federal law and state law."
Stephen Gutwillig, California's state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said that the new policy would protect millions of Americans who benefited from the medicinal properties of marijuana.
"Under the Obama administration, the federal government may finally be recovering from a long bout with 'reefer madness,' " he said.
Any change in policy comes too late for Lynch, 46, who's already been convicted. Lynch said he began using marijuana for medicinal purposes in 2005, when he was suffering bad headaches. He said the drug helped him a lot but that he had to drive a long way to get it.
Eventually, Lynch said, he began researching medical cannabis on the Internet and decided to open his own dispensary. He said he'd received nothing but support from Morro Bay officials, with the city attorney and city council members stopping by.
"Everybody liked the way I had set up the business," Lynch said.
Except for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
"They came in; they took everything," Lynch said. "They took all the money. They froze my bank accounts. They began their propaganda war machine against me. They put my name up on the DEA Web site. They made it sound like I was selling drugs to children out in the schoolyard."
Federal authorities charged that Lynch used his business, the Central Coast Compassionate Caregivers marijuana store, as a front for a supersized retail drug-dealing center that sold more than $2.1 million in marijuana over a year. The customers included 281 minors and undercover DEA agents who paid two to three times the street value for their marijuana, authorities said. A local doctor also was indicted, accused of writing marijuana recommendations for minors without conducting any physical evaluations.
Lynch's case is igniting debate over how far the government should go either in prosecuting or ignoring medical marijuana dispensaries.
Capps said the case "is an example of a big conflict," because Lynch was operating his business with the full authority of the California government but was prosecuted under federal law. Federal law, which supersedes state laws, makes distributing marijuana a crime and offers no exceptions for medical use.
Capps said she wanted to respect the wishes of California voters, adding that the federal government has plenty to do — such as protecting U.S. borders — and should concentrate on crimes that don't conflict with state laws.
Lynch said he was forced to close his business when the DEA told his landlord that the property would be forfeited if Lynch weren't evicted. Months later, Lynch was arrested and taken to a federal detention center in Los Angeles, where his family posted $400,000 in bail to get him released.
Lynch isn't sure what to expect when he's sentenced Monday. He's not familiar with breaking the law.
"I've got a spotless record," he said. "I've never even had a DUI. The only thing on my record is a seat belt violation here in the state of California. You know, they've destroyed my life personally. I'm filing for bankruptcy right now. And friends are scared to talk to me because the federal government is breathing down my neck."
(Marisa Taylor contributed to this article.)
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