A federal judge in Los Angeles has sentenced a medical marijuana dispensary owner to a year and a day in prison in one of the nation's first cases since the Obama administration adjusted its pot policy.
U.S. District George Wu on Thursday found that the case of 47-year-old Charles Lynch merited an exception to the mandatory minimum five-year sentence that guidelines called for.
The judge felt, however, he was bound by the law to issue at least a one-year prison term. Lynch could have been sentenced to up to 20 years in federal prison due to the amount of marijuana -- 100 kilograms -- involved
Lynch was convicted of five marijuana-related offenses last year for running a medical marijuana dispensary collective in Morro Bay in San Luis Obispo County.
He sought leniency after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced earlier this year that federal agents will now target marijuana distributors only when they violate both federal and state laws.
At a previous hearing in March, Wu asked for legal briefs from the attorneys, and at the conclusion of a second proceeding the following month, the judge set Thursday's hearing to resolve any remaining issues and finally sentence Lynch.
Wu indicated he was considering sentencing Lynch to one year, possibly in home confinement. But prosecutors pointed out in court papers that the large quantity of marijuana in Lynch's possession at the time of his arrest required a multiple-year prison term.
At the March 23 hearing, Wu asked for written clarification from U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder's office as to whether recent recent statements regarding federal prosecutions of medical marijuana cases would have an impact on Lynch's sentence.
The cultivation, use and sale of doctor-prescribed marijuana is legal in certain instances under California law but banned under federal law, which supersedes state law. Attorney General Eric Holder recently said, however, that federal agents would now target only marijuana distributors who violate both federal and state laws.
Wu indicated that the Justice Department's clarification of its newly stated position on medical marijuana prosecutions would not change Lynch's conviction but could affect his sentence.
In recent weeks, Wu seemed to be pondering whether Lynch can be sentenced for an activity that he believed to be legal under Morro Bay municipal codes.
Morro Bay's city attorney, Robert Schultz, testified in April that Lynch had the blessings of the city council for his Central Coast Compassionate Caregivers and was a valuable and well-liked member of the approximately 10,000-person city.
Lynch, he said, obtained a business license from the city, held a grand opening in 2006, used discrete signage, stationed a security guard at his location, enforced membership rules, ran surveillance cameras and regularly gave guided tours of his pharmacy-like operation to anyone who asked.
Lynch operated his medical marijuana dispensary for 11 months before it was raided by Drug Enforcement Administration agents in March 2007.