DRCNet Interview: California Medical Marijuana Provider Bryan Epis 7/15/05

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Northern California resident Bryan Epis is one person directly affected by the Supreme Court's adverse ruling in the Raich case, where it held that the federal government can arrest and prosecute people using or providing medical marijuana even in states where it is legal. In a case that drew national attention, Epis, who was growing for himself with four other patients, with the leftover going to a local dispensary, was one of the first California medical marijuana providers to be convicted of drug offenses under federal law. After serving nearly a quarter of a 10-year federal prison sentence, Epis was released from prison last year by a federal appeals court pending the outcome of Raich. Now, as the federal prosecution machine reawakens in the wake of that decision, Epis is awaiting resentencing and faces the possibility of going back to prison to finish out his sentence. Drug War Chronicle spoke with him Thursday to check in on where he's been, what he's been through, and what's going to happen next.

Drug War Chronicle: How did you become involved in the medical marijuana movement?

Bryan Epis: I suffered chronic pain from a car accident long ago. I was seeing orthopedic specialists for compound fractures of the vertebrae, and they would prescribe things like codeine, Vicodin, but that stuff put me into a state of lethargy and incoherence. I complained to my doctors that I couldn't function as well as I liked on their pain medications, and they said all conventional pain killers would do the same thing. This was back in the 1980s, before Proposition 215 and all that. One of my doctors recommended I try marijuana. He said he couldn't prescribe it, but that it worked a little differently and wouldn't make me drowsy all the time. He was right. It worked well with the pain, and I wasn't as drowsy or lethargic or incoherent. I continued using it, and when the California medical marijuana law came into effect in 1996, I thought, "Oh, this is nice," and went out and got a recommendation from a physician.

Bryan Epis reunited with daughter Ashley
But one thing I noticed when I visited a few dispensaries was that they were charging the same price as on the street -- $50, $60, up to $80 for an eighth! I didn't see why patients should have to pay that much anymore. After all, the law had changed, right? I got the wild idea to lower the price. I thought I would open a dispensary and charge $10 an eighth. I was living up in Chico and I saw in the paper that someone was going to open a dispensary there. At the same time, I saw that San Jose -- my mom was living nearby in Silicon Valley -- had created some rules and regulations for dispensaries. I wrote to San Jose about that, but never started a dispensary there. Instead, I met the guy from Chico and we decided to start one there together.

I was pretty busy. I was also in my third year of law school, and at the same time, I was starting to really get intrigued with the Internet and was learning programming languages to get ready to set up a hotel reservation web site. [He has now done that -- http://www.bestlodging.com is the site.]

Chronicle: What happened in Chico?

Epis: It wasn't like San Jose. San Jose would say "Yes, send us a proposal, we'll work with you." They were complying with the spirit of the law. I thought Chico would be the same way, but they were hostile to the idea of a dispensary opening. They threatened us and said they might call the DEA. I was arrogant. I thought I was safe because I was complying with state law. I was reasonably relying on a San Francisco judge's holding that the California law permitted nonprofit dispensaries to operate. That didn't matter to the DEA, and they ended up raiding me.

Chronicle: You were charged with conspiracy to manufacture more than 1,000 plants and faced a mandatory ten year federal prison sentence if convicted as a drug dealer in federal court as a drug dealer in federal court. What happened at trial?

Epis: All of my defenses were denied. The judge ruled we couldn't use a medical necessity defense. We were denied an entrapment defense. We tried to argue that the federal courts didn't have jurisdiction under the commerce clause. That didn't work.

The only way the words "medical marijuana" got in the trial was because the prosecutor, Sacramento Assistant US Attorney Samuel Wong took one page out of my proposal to the San Jose authorities and used it to portray me as a greedy drug dealer. As I said, I was thinking about charging $10 an eighth for five star quality cannabis buds. As part of my proposal for a San Jose dispensary, while I was doodling one day, I made a spreadsheet with an overly ambitious preliminary calculation, with the dispensary going from 20 members to 100,000 nine months later. The rest of the 17-page proposal talked about how it was nonprofit, about how half of everything would go to charities and good causes, but we weren't allowed to bring in the other 16 pages because the judge didn't want the jury to hear about the cannabis clubs in San Jose.

I was charged with growing plants at my house, not distribution, but the government commingled everything. Chico Medical Marijuana Caregivers was totally separate from the San Jose dispensary, which didn't even exist except as a proposal. Using the one page spreadsheet, they claimed we were growing enough marijuana in my basement for 100,000 people! I was actually growing with four other people there, and I allowed them to grow there just because I was a nice guy. They didn't have anywhere else to go, and they were sick. Two of them are dead now. The prosecutor knew what his witnesses were saying was a lie, and they were allowed to lie to the jury. The judge let them get up there and lie, but he wouldn't let us mention cannabis clubs. The jury convicted me of conspiracy to grow more than a thousand plants, even though we never did, and I was sentenced to 10 years in prison for conspiracy to follow California's medical marijuana law. I served 25 months and 26 days before I was released pending appeal. The county jails were the worst; they were horrendous. I spent almost ten months in county jails in between going to Lompoc and then Terminal Island Federal Prison.

Chronicle: It must have been great to be a free man again.

Epis: It was so nice. Mike Gray from Common Sense for Drug Policy and Don Duncan and Stacey Swimme of Americans for Safe Access picked me up. We went over to Mike's place, had some beer and wine and nuts and cheese, and then went out for sushi. I hadn't had any of that stuff for two years.

Chronicle: You have gained a lot of support over the years. There have been demonstrations on your behalf, people have gotten themselves arrested doing civil disobedience over your case, there was the billboard campaign. Why do you think your case has resonated so deeply?

Epis: I was one of the first to go to trial rather than taking a plea deal. Before Wong, there was a different prosecutor, and he offered a deal for six months of house arrest. I could have taken that, but then he left and Wong came along and suddenly instead of six months house arrest it was four years in prison. I figured why should I plead guilty for that, especially when I didn't think I was guilty of anything? Then, when I was sentenced to ten years for growing marijuana for patients, people were really sickened. That's when the billboard campaign with my daughter came about, with her holding a sign saying "My Dad is Not a Criminal." It was pretty nice to know you have that kind of support.

Chronicle: Now you face the prospect of doing more time. When do you have to go back to court?

David Borden & Bryan Epis at the April 2005 NORML conference
Epis: August 1. The US 9th Circuit remanded my case back to federal district court in Sacramento pending the Raich decision. We were really hoping for a victory in Raich; they could have applied it to my case. Now that Raich has been decided and we lost, the prosecutor says it is time to resentence. It is possible it will be postponed, because we are arguing that the 9th Circuit first said I should be resentenced under the Blakely and Booker sentencing decisions, though they later changed that to "extant law applicable to sentencing." If they apply Blakely and Booker, that would nullify my mandatory minimum sentence and I could be resentenced under the guidelines. We're also arguing that the judge should not have found I was a "manager" or "supervisor" in sentencing me. We are asking for time served. I think that is way more than enough. The prosecutor wants the same ten year sentence.

Chronicle: What can people do to help at this point?

Epis: They can write to the judge. If they are patients, they can talk about how marijuana helps them with their ailments. If they are caregivers, they can talk about how they help a patient. If they know me, they can tell him what I nice guy I am [laughs]. If not, they can tell him they have heard about my case and think the sentence is excessive and I should be sentenced to time served. The more letters, the better. It's going to take a lot of letters.

But it's not just about me. People need to get everyone they can involved in doing things like writing Congress -- it's up to them to change this situation.

FOLLOWING IS DRCNET'S APPEAL FOR BRYAN SENT TO OUR LIST EARLIER THIS WEEK:

Many DRCNet readers know the case of Bryan Epis, a medical marijuana patient and provider who was sentenced to ten years after being convicted in federal court in 2002. Bryan was released last year, pending re-sentencing, following the US Supreme Court's Blakely ruling. DRCNet participated in a major demonstration in Sacramento on the day of his sentencing, and we have also gotten to know Bryan personally after he was released, two years later, pending re-sentencing after the Supreme Court's rulings in Blakely and Booker began to change the way federal sentencing works.

A victory in the recent Raich medical marijuana case would have given Bryan a new trial, during which he presumably would have been allowed to present evidence that he was providing medical marijuana to patients in compliance with California law. Unfortunately that didn't happen. But the Supreme Court rulings now give Judge Frank Damrell the power to give Bryan a shorter sentence this time, toward which the two years Bryan has already spent behind bars would count. Judge Damrell will pronounce his new sentence on August 1, 9:30am. Prosecutor Samuel Wong has asked that the same ten year sentence be imposed again.

We are writing you today to ask that you send letters to Judge Damrell in support of Bryan -- especially those of you who have conditions for which medical marijuana is an effective treatment, those of you who have seen loved ones with painful medical conditions gain some relief from medical marijuana, and those of you who know Bryan personally and can attest with concrete examples as to what a good and kind person he is. Bryan's attorney thinks that Judge Damrell probably does not believe that marijuana is a legitimate medicine, and your personal testimonials could help to persuade him otherwise.

Regardless of what you have to say, please be sure that your letters are respectful. Judge Damrell has the power to sentence Bryan to as much as ten years or as little as time served. This is not a moment when righteous anger will help our cause -- save it for the next time when it will. The same request applies to any of you who attend the hearing to show support in person, as well as to dress conservatively. Letters should be addressed to:

The Honorable Frank C. Damrell, Jr.
US District Court
501 I Street, Suite 4-200
Sacramento, CA 95814
They should write on the envelope and at the top of the letter: "Re: Sentencing of Bryan Epis, #97-381." Please send copies of your letter to us at [email protected] or by fax to (202) 293-8344, and to Bryan's attorney, Brenda Grantland, at (415) 381-6105 or [email protected]. Also, if you are interested you can read Bryan's Sentencing Memorandum at http://www.bestlodging.com/sentencing.pdf online.

Thanks for considering this request to help a fellow activist who took a great risk and has paid a great price.

-- END --
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Issue #395 -- 7/15/05

Drug War Chronicle, recent top items

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DRCNet Interview: California Medical Marijuana Provider Bryan Epis | Feature: California's "Treatment Not Jail" Law Faces New Attack from Old Foes | Feature: Bush Drug Budget Cuts for HIDTA, Task Force Grants Look to Be Restored | Feature: Much Ado About Lollipops -- Marijuana-Flavored Candy, Hemp, Politicians, and the Media | Weekly: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories | Medical Marijuana: California Activist Facing Federal Prison Time Commits Suicide, Commemorative Vigils Set for Tuesday | Medical Marijuana: ACLU, DPA Threaten to Sue Schwarzenegger Over Suspending California Medical Marijuana Program | Mad Science: House Committee Approves Mycoherbicide Testing in Bid to Wipe Out Drug Crops | Marijuana: Western Pennsylvania Police Chiefs Say Decriminalize It | Sentencing: House Judiciary Committee Head Interferes in Drug Case, Demands Longer Sentence | Search and Seizure: Utah Federal Court Judges Split on Warrantless Doorknob Drug Tests | Drug Raids: Two Unarmed Men Killed in Separate Drug Raids | Latin America: Coca Leader Poised to Become Bolivia's Next President | Announcement: Scholarships Available to Drug Policy Reform Conference in Long Beach This November | Web Scan: Prison Smoking Ban, Patrick Crusade, Licensing Poppies, BlogCritics Book Review | Job Opportunity: Deputy Director of Communications, Drug Policy Alliance, NYC | Short Term Job Opportunity: Marijuana Policy Project Web Site Transition Specialist | Errata: Brazil Harm Reduction | Weekly: The Reformer's Calendar

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