A highly anticipated trial involving conflicting marijuana laws got underway Friday in Los Angeles federal court with a prosecutor painting the owner of a Morro Bay medicinal marijuana store as a brazen drug trafficker who sold dope to teenagers and toted around a backpack stuffed with cash.
Defense attorneys struggled to provide context for their client's alleged crimes after being barred by the judge from mentioning the phrase "medical marijuana."
At the center of the case is Charlie Lynch, a 46-year-old businessman from San Luis Obispo County, who opened a facility called Central Coast Compassionate Caregivers in the spring of 2006.
Prosecutors contend that Lynch violated federal law by selling $2.1 million worth of marijuana in less than a year, some of it to people "not yet old enough to legally drink."
Lynch's defense attorneys would like to present evidence that their client was dispensing doctor-prescribed medical marijuana to sick people in accordance with state law and with the blessing of elected officials in Morro Bay. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has concluded that federal drug laws trump those of the state and that the reasons why the drug is distributed are irrelevant.
But one of Lynch's lawyers hinted during opening statements that Lynch had sought -- and presumably received -- approval from an official with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration before he set up shop. If they are able to convince U.S. District Judge George Wu that there is a sufficient basis for mounting such a quasi-entrapment defense, they may be allowed to present evidence that Lynch believed he was operating within the law, which legal experts said would likely make him more sympathetic to jurors.
"It could have an enormous effect," said Rebecca Lonergan, a USC law professor and former federal prosecutor in Los Angeles. "Any time you have a hot political or public policy issue like this, there is the risk that members of the jury will decide based on their politics, not the evidence in the case."
Though they were not explicitly told that the case involved medical marijuana, potential jurors revealed strong opinions on the topic and confusion about the law during the jury selection process. One man, an engineer, said he had trouble reconciling how it could be legal to sell marijuana under state law and prohibited by federal law.
"It just doesn't make sense to me," he said. The man was excused from the panel.
Other potential jurors were dismissed after revealing strong feelings on the issue.
"I don't think I'd be a fair juror because I tend to side with the state law," said a young woman from Torrance who told lawyers she had one friend with chronic back pain and another with stomach cancer who had used the drug medicinally.
"If a person is going to have a better quality of life, I'd prefer to give them that," she said.
Another potential juror said she was so troubled by the fact that someone would break any law -- state or federal -- that she had already concluded the defendant was guilty.
Opening statements began Friday morning with Assistant U.S. Atty. David P. Kowal telling jurors that Lynch had sold drugs to more than 2,000 people, 250 of them under the age of 21, which carries a special sentencing enhancement under federal law. Many of the young customers "came back time and again," Kowal said.
He told jurors that records seized from Lynch's store and home revealed that he distributed more than 100 kilos of marijuana worth about $2.1 million during the approximately 11 months he was in business. When police and federal agents raided Lynch's home in March 2007, they found a backpack containing $27,000, possible proceeds from recent sales at the store.
"It involved money. Lots of money," Kowal told jurors, "and he was at the center of everything."
If convicted, Lynch faces a minimum of five years in federal prison.
As the prosecutor spoke, Lynch, who looks as much like a bank manager as drug dealer, sat impassively between his two federal public defenders, Reuven Cohen and John Littrell.
Cohen told jurors that they "will hear directly from Charlie Lynch" when he takes the witness stand in his own defense. He also told jurors that there would be testimony from Lynch's patients, parents who took sick kids to his dispensary and elected officials from Morro Bay who supported Lynch's efforts.
How much of that testimony jurors will actually get to hear remains to be seen. The judge must still decide whether the entrapment defense is viable and opens the door to such testimony, a decision likely to be reached over the next several days.
If jurors were to hear Lynch's story, it would go something like this, according court files and interviews:
Far from the cynical entrepreneur portrayed by prosecutors, Lynch is a compassionate and responsible man who wanted to help sick people and make a reasonable profit. He obtained a business license before opening his doors and was welcomed by city leaders in Morro Bay, some of whom mugged for photos with him at a Chamber of Commerce ribbon cutting.
The facility itself was situated in the heart of the seaside community's downtown shopping district.
Among Lynch's patients was Owen Beck, a 17-year-old high school football and soccer player who developed bone cancer and had to have his leg amputated, Lynch's lawyers said. The teen's parents took him to Lynch's facility after traditional medicine took away his appetite and did little to ease his pain.
The pot lessened Owen's pain but not his appetite, he said in an interview on actor Drew Carey's website, www.reason.tv.
Steve Beck, Owen's father, said Lynch often gave his son marijuana at no charge because he was "a compassionate kind of guy."