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Medical marijuana store owner sentenced to prison

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A federal judge Thursday sentenced a Morro Bay man to a year in prison for operating a medical marijuana store. Its the first to come up since the Obama Administration indicated it would end federal raids on marijuana dispensaries. KPCC's Frank Stoltze reports on the story of Charles Lynch.

Frank Stoltze: On the steps of the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles a few weeks ago, Charles Lynch recalled the morning three years ago when Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided his home.

Charlie Lynch: You know, I’d just gotten out of bed, I didn’t have any clothes on, and they says "Open the door or we’re going to tear it down," so I open it and DEA agents in full gear with their masks, their shields, their bulletproof vests, their guns, came barreling through the door, threw me on the ground, and went through the house looking for nuclear bombs, I believe (laughs) or something of that nature.

Stoltze: A year earlier, Lynch had opened a medical marijuana dispensary in Morro Bay. He said he was tired of driving an hour and a half south to Santa Barbara to the nearest medical pot store so he could purchase the marijuana he smoked to alleviate excruciating migraine headaches. He said he wanted to help himself and others.

Lynch won the blessing of the Morro Bay City Council and Chamber of Commerce, and he operated under California’s 1996 law that permits the sale of pot for medical purposes. The local sheriff was less enamored with the enterprise.

He worked with the DEA to get Lynch charged under federal drug laws. Last year, a jury convicted him. The forewoman told the Los Angeles Times that she believed he’d “intended well” and that the jury “had no choice” but to convict him.

[Crowd Outside Courthouse: Hey Charlie! (Cheering)]

Lynch: I’d just like to say I appreciate everybody who came in my support today and showed up for court.

Stoltze: At a court appearance earlier this year, dozens of people showed up to support Lynch, 47, a former computer programmer. Owen Beck was a teenager diagnosed with bone cancer. He faced the amputation of his leg when he visited Lynch's store with his parents to obtain marijuana his oncologist had prescribed.

Owen Beck: You know, like, immediately I wasn’t nauseous anymore. I got hungry. After my surgery, I had a lot of phantom pain – that comes associated with amputation. And that actually quelled the phantom pain pretty substantially. So overall, it was basically the miracle drug throughout my whole treatment.

Stoltze: Steven Beck said he had no problem with his son smoking marijuana.

Steven Beck: It was quite simple and it was not a very difficult decision, because if you had seen my son when he was going through chemotherapy treatments, facing an amputation in a short period of time, seeing how ill he was, if you had kids, you’d do anything to help your kids.

Stoltze: The Becks called on U.S. District Judge George Wu to show leniency toward Lynch. In previous hearings, Wu had indicated he was seeking to do just that. He said if he could “find a way out” of federal mandatory sentencing laws he would.

Joe Elford is an attorney with Americans for Safe Access – a pro-medical marijuana group. He said Lynch’s sentencing coincides with the Obama Administration’s signals that it intends to end federal raids on pot stores.

Joe Elford: Right when Obama was sworn in, there were four raids – it was either that day or the following day. By all appearances they were acting out before they lost their power to do that. Since then, there’s only been one more raid. But there seems to have been a sharp decrease in federal raids and I would hope a complete moratorium on federal raids on dispensaries.

Stoltze: Elford said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has yet to issue specific guidelines. Before his sentencing, Lynch had told supporters he’s optimistic.

Lynch: I feel like we’re teetering on the cusp of change and the change is coming eventually, but for some people like me, I don’t know if that change is coming in time to keep us out of jail.

Stoltze: His attorneys have vowed to appeal any sentence. They argue the federal government never should have brought the case.

Even if the federal DEA ends raids, confusion remains over California’s pot laws 13 years after voters passed an initiative that legalized medical marijuana. Some cities, like Glendale, ban pot dispensaries. Advocates are challenging those laws. Other cities, like Los Angeles where more than 500 of the stores have opened, have imposed moratoriums on permitting any more.