A Los Angeles federal judge Monday refused to sentence a Morro Bay man who ran a medical marijuana dispensary and sold the drug to minors until the government clarifies its newly revised position on such cases.
Charles Lynch, 46, was convicted last August of five federal counts, including distributing marijuana, conspiring to distribute marijuana and providing the drug to people under the age of 21.
The case has become something of a cause celebre among proponents of medical marijuana. The courtroom Monday was crowded with spectators, many wearing green ribbons in a show of support for Lynch.
Local news from across Southern California
U.S. District Judge George H. Wu said he would postpone sentencing until prosecutors could provide a written clarification from the Justice Department about the government's position on medical marijuana prosecutions.
President Barack Obama's newly appointed attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., said last week that the Justice Department now has no plans to prosecute dispensary owners who comply with their state law.
The cultivation, use and sale of doctor-prescribed marijuana is legal in certain instances under California law, but is banned altogether under federal law, which supersedes state law.
"From reading the reports, there is a change," Wu told U.S. Attorney David P. Kowal. "I really would like this from the DOJ."
Kowal argued unsuccessfully that he didn't think Holder's comments in any way affected the Lynch case or the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles and urged Wu to go ahead with the sentencing.
Medical cannabis prosecutions by his office in the Southland are "still ongoing," Kowal said, adding the Lynch case is "completely consistent" with Holder's policies.
Wu refused to budge.
"I read and heard that something has changed and I want to know what it was," he said. "I want it in writing."
Wu set a telephone status conference for Friday with Kowal to determine if and when the DOJ might clarify its stance. An April 30 date was then set to sentence Lynch, but Wu said he might revise that date depending upon when he receives a response from Holder's office.
During trial, defense attorneys painted Lynch as an honest businessman who had the blessings of Morro Bay's city attorney and mayor prior to the 2006 opening of his Central Coast Compassionate Caregivers.
U.S. Attorney Thomas P. O'Brien said his office prosecuted Lynch for good reason.
"In every single (medical marijuana) case we have prosecuted over the past several years, the defendants violated state law as well as federal law," O'Brien said.
In postponing sentence Monday, Wu said the Justice Department's clarification would likely not change Lynch's conviction, but it could affect his sentence.