by Denny Walsh, Sacramento Bee Staff Writer,
Bryan James Epis doesn't strike one as a person likely to be found in the vortex of a national controversy. His soft, friendly features, mellow demeanor and low-key conversational manner leave an impression of inner peace rather than outer turmoil. But the husky, 35-year-old son of a well-to-do Silicon Valley woman finds himself a poster boy for pro-medical marijuana forces -- and in a fight for his freedom that could end with 10 years behind bars. His famous lawyer, J.
Tony Serra, is trying to counter the marijuana-growing charges with a medical-necessity defense in Sacramento federal court, where medical necessity is, by law, not a defense. That may sound improbable, but it would be an understatement. Longtime observers agree it is one of the most bizarre trials in the court's history. State law allows seriously ill people who have a doctor's recommendation the use of marijuana to alleviate pain and debilitating physical side effects of other treatments. Federal law bans pot for any purpose. Epis was associated with a cannabis buyer's club in Chico, and his prosecution is the first involving such an organization to get to a federal jury. But when the trial started, words such as 'cannabis club,' 'medicine,' 'patient,' and 'doctor's recommendation,' were verboten by order of U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr., who was following the dictates of the U.S. Supreme Court. The judge and opposing lawyers even agreed on a euphemism for the Chico cannabis club -- 'dispensary.' That was two weeks ago. Despite Congress, the Supreme Court, Damrell and prosecutor Samuel Wong, the wily Serra has been able to get his client's medical defense before the jury of eight women and four men. On Wednesday in his closing argument, he implored them to follow their consciences. At first, it was by inference in his opening statement and the way he questioned witnesses. But by Tuesday and Wednesday, all the barriers were down. Wong himself was referring to 'patients' in his cross-examination of Epis and 'cannabis clubs' in his closing argument, and Damrell was acknowledging that Proposition 215 -- California's 1996 medical marijuana initiative -- and its role in the defendant's motive 'is clearly before the jury.' Damrell announced to the attorneys Wednesday that he would instruct the jury today to 'disregard all evidence relative to the manufacturing of marijuana for medicinal use.' He said: 'We are clearly beyond the margin in this case. I've tried to go over this minefield carefully but obviously not successfully.' Wong and his case agent, Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Ronald Mancini, are scornful of the medical defense. Chico Medical Marijuana Caregivers 'was a scam set up with Prop. 215 as a shield for the manufacture and marketing of marijuana,' Wong told Damrell. The prosecutor said that the club was selling blank recommendations already signed by a physician. Because he could produce none, the judge would not let him make the accusation before the jury. 'You just like to get high, right?' Wong demanded of Epis on cross-examination, but the defendant insisted he smoked marijuana for chronic pain. Beyond that, he steadfastly maintained that he simply wanted to help sick people. Although he admits cultivating pot, he denies the only two charges in the indictment: that he conspired to build his operation to more than 1,000 plants and that his own crop ever exceeded 100 plants. Epis was born in Mountain View and grew up in neighboring Los Altos, an affluent Santa Clara County community. While a junior in high school, he was in a near-fatal car wreck, suffering severe head, knee and back injuries. He lost his father, an electrical engineer, shortly after that to a heart attack. The wreck left Epis with ongoing back pain from two compressed vertebrae. He testified that he began smoking marijuana because, unlike other painkillers, it does not make him lethargic. He said, however, that he has not smoked it since he was arrested in 1997. When he enrolled at California State University, Chico, in 1985, Epis' mother bought a house in Chico, where he has lived off and on ever since. He earned an electrical-engineering degree from Chico State and a degree from Cal Northern School of Law, also in Chico. Evidence seized during law enforcement's raid on a 1997 pot crop in the basement of that Chico residence forms the basis of the charges. Epis testified that he first grew marijuana at the residence in 1993 and 1994 for the Cannabis Buyers' Club in San Francisco. The club was founded in 1991 by medical marijuana pioneer Dennis Peron and sold pot to patients whose doctors prescribed it. For years it operated illegally and openly with little interference from law enforcement. Butte County's eradication team first raided Epis' house in 1994, but the evidence was later suppressed when the search was ruled unconstitutional. With the passage of Proposition 215 in November 1996, Epis began growing pot again and helped finance the Chico buyers' club. His goal, he testified, was not to profit. On the contrary, he said, he hoped to persuade growers who were supplying the cannabis clubs springing up all over the state to lower their prices so more patients would have access to the drug. He said he felt club operators should have been telling growers that 'times have changed. It is outrageous' for club members 'to have to pay $80 for an eighth' of an ounce, Epis told the jury. He estimated that he spent 10 hours a week at the Chico club in the spring of 1997 and another 10 hours a week working on the marijuana crops in his basement. At the same time, he said, he was going to law school, caring part time for his 3-year-old daughter and 'learning program languages for the Internet.' That same year, Epis started an online service for hotel reservations that has become 'very successful,' he testified. When the narcotics enforcers came along June 25, 1997, he was about to get out of the medical marijuana business because he had too many other things going and because he was frustrated with certain aspects of the venture, Epis said. The jury will begin deliberations today.