National Confusion Over Medical Marijuana Law Is Destroying Lives

Screenshot of Charles Lyncha, via 'Lynching Charlie Lynch' film.


by Aaron Kase

on April 13, 2015

The road to prison can be paved with good intentions, especially if you get caught on the wrong side of the federal government and its fetishism with the War on Drugs.

Last week, the New York Times profiled the story of Charles C. Lynch, a former computer software worker who opened a medical marijuana dispensary in the small beach town of Morro Bay, California in 2006. He had a business license, the approval of town officials and made sure to follow California law, which has allowed the sale of marijuana for medicinal use since 1996.

Nevertheless, Lynch was convicted of several federal drug violations in 2008 and sentenced to a year and a day in prison. Now, he’s waiting on an appeal and hoping that a bill passed by Congress last year can spring him from his legal nightmare.

Lynch’s case highlights the essential absurdity and cruelty of the federal marijuana prohibition: People are still in danger of prison time for openly practicing a trade that harms no one, brings relief to countless patients and is considered perfectly legal by 23 states and counting.

The legal landscape for medical marijuana has been tenuous throughout the entire Obama presidency. Marijuana is still a Schedule I controlled substance, defined as a drug of abuse with no medical value, even though the National Institute of Drug Abuse has acknowledged that it can be useful for fighting cancer and numerous other ailments.

Although the President announced from the outset of his term that he didn’t intend to go after the medical marijuana industry, U.S. attorneys in California did just that, repeatedly attempting to shut down high-profile dispensaries like the Harborside Health Center in Oakland, and the Berkeley Patients Group in Berkeley.

The raids slackened off after 2013 when the Justice Department issued a guidance to federal prosecutors to lay off actors in the marijuana industry who aren’t involved with violence or smuggling and don’t sell to minors. However, those who were previously arrested are still filtering their way through the criminal justice system.

That’s where Lynch comes in, still waiting for a chance to appeal his original sentence. However, he might be dealt a get-out-of-jail free card, from Congress of all places. Last year, Congress passed an appropriations bill that purported to bring relief to medicinal vendors, banning the Department of Justice (DOJ) from spending money to stop states from enacting medical marijuana regimes.

Now Lynch is trying to use the order to convince the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to shut down the case against him. Going forward with the prosecution, his lawyers argued, “would be committing criminal acts,” the Times reported.

The DOJ has in effect ignored the congressional bill, claiming that it only stops them from interfering with state laws, not from prosecuting individuals who violate federal law. But several lawmakers who sponsored the amendment maintain that stopping individual prosecutions was indeed their intent.

Barring other unexpected shifts in the landscape, the decision lays at the feet of federal court.

“If any court, especially the Ninth Circuit, declares that the provision precludes federal prosecution of state-compliant individuals, this will be huge,” Ohio State law professor and marijuana law expert Douglas A. Berman told the Times.

Lynch has already had his assets seized, spent nine months under house arrest before he could make bond and eventually lost his house. Now he waits for his day in court. To deny Lynch’s appeal, his public defender wrote in court filings, would mean “the Department of Justice’s illegal actions, and their chilling effects on California’s medical marijuana system, would continue unabated.”