10-year sentence in medical pot case

August 09, 2002

Denny Walsh -- Bee Staff Writer,

Bryan James Epis, the first person associated with a California medical marijuana dispensary to be tried in federal court for growing pot, was sentenced Monday in Sacramento to a mandatory 10 years in prison. Epis, 35, insists the crop in his Chico house was only for himself and four other seriously ill people whose physicians had recommended the drug in conformance with California's 1996 Compassionate Use Act. But he ran head- on into federal law that makes no allowance for medical necessity. jpg'>The case has become a rallying point for medical marijuana proponents nationwide, who view it as the ultimate injustice to come from the chasm separating state and federal law. More particularly, these advocates contend, Epis is a victim of Sacramento federal prosecutors willing to pursue such a case, in contrast to their counterparts in other districts. Epis himself told U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr. that he made a mistake in not growing the marijuana in the San Francisco-based Northern District of California, 'where I would not have been charged.' Meanwhile, a handful of Epis supporters gathered outside the courthouse, waving signs in the midday heat. Americans for Safe Access spokeswoman Amanda Whittemore said the number was small because of confrontations between demonstrators and government officials during Epis' trial and their fallout. 'I know there were people who hadn't been messed with for 10 or 20 years until they came out here and protested during the trial,' Whittemore said. 'They have been harassed ever since. But it's never going to change if we all stay at home.' Some supporters held up placards comparing the government's treatment of medical marijuana users to its treatment of terrorists. Others wore leis of plastic pot leafs. Inside, Damrell noted that it is not within his power to resolve the conflict between the federal zero-tolerance policy and laws in nine states allowing medical use. It is up to the Congress or the U.S. Supreme Court to deal with the disparity, he said. Damrell listened attentively for 2 1/2 hours to arguments by defense lawyer J. Tony Serra and Assistant U.S. Attorney Samuel Wong, peppering them both with tough questions. Serra, a famous San Francisco attorney known for his passionate prose and expressive body language, didn't disappoint. Ultimately, however, he failed to persuade Damrell to sentence Epis below the minimum 10 years. Wong specializes in marijuana prosecutions. His cool demeanor is the antithesis of Serra's. At Wong's urging, the judge found that Epis was 'a manager or supervisor' of a criminal enterprise. However, Damrell rejected the prosecutor's position that Epis lied to the jury and is guilty of obstructing justice. 'He gave his interpretation of events,' the judge recalled. 'The jury didn't believe him, but that doesn't mean he obstructed justice.' 'He's a crook,' were Wong's final words before Damrell imposed sentence. Serra retorted, '(Wong) has to justify this for his own conscience, so he's just being a cynic and saying it was a money operation, and it never was.' If Epis qualifies for the maximum amount of good time -- 54 days a year -- he will serve approximately 85 percent of the sentence. Epis has electrical engineering and law degrees and no prior criminal record. He has said he started using marijuana to manage chronic pain from a car accident. The jury found him guilty of conspiring to grow at least 1,000 marijuana plants in his Chico home, and actually growing at least 100 plants in 1997. Proposition 215, California's medical marijuana initiative, was approved by voters the previous year. In testimony at trial, and again Monday before Damrell, Epis insisted that there was no conspiracy; that he and four other people with doctor's recommendations were growing the pot for their individual use. Whatever was left over was given to a Chico cannabis club Epis helped establish for distribution to its patients, he said. Wong's theory that he was driven by an image of huge profits 'is so outlandish,' he said Monday. Serra told the judge the jury showed 'not a wit of compassion for a good human being who was alleviating his own chronic pain and trying to help others.' The attorney also said the judge 'didn't give us a defense' when he instructed the jury not to consider medical necessity evidence. Damrell pointed out that he was simply following the dictates of federal law. 'He is no different than any other drug trafficker that this court has seen and sent to jail,' Wong said of Epis. 'His attempt to play up the role of ill people in his crimes is just sickening.' The prosecutor argued that Epis' 'lame story about planning to make only $10 an hour' from the work he did for the dispensary is belied by profit projections on documents he created and which were found in a search of his home. 'What he saw in Proposition 215 was a license to grow and market marijuana to make money,' Wong told Damrell. 'Every time he wrote down something about marijuana, he wrote dollar signs next to it.' But Serra predicted, 'History will ultimately vindicate Bryan Epis. He's a martyr to the war between the feds and medicine for the sick and dying.'

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