Pot grower who may lose farm says his only crime was caring

April 21, 2007

Leon Alligood, Tennessean

“I remain unashamed of what I was doing,” he said on a recent afternoon, the first warm day since dogwood winter settled on the month of April. He sat on a deck at a West Meade home where he has been employed as a landscaper for several months.
 
When lawmen raided his farm in August 2002, this man of medicine — a professional public health consultant who has worked for anti-substance abuse programs across the country — told officers he was growing marijuana for medical reasons.

He also gave it to friends and acquaintances suffering from AIDS, cancer or chronic diseases.

Now, with less than three weeks remaining on his 18-month halfway house sentence, Ellis is anxious to return to the 187 acres he’s owned in the Fly community of northwestern Maury County for the past four decades. But he’s not sure he’ll get the chance.

Federal prosecutors want to take away his farm under laws that let the government seize property used in the commission of a crime.

He and his lawyer think that punishment is too harsh for the crime to which Ellis pleaded guilty. Yes, what he did was against the law, he says, but he wasn't dealing drugs for profit — he was helping relieve the pain of people who were dying and in severe pain.

While his attorney fights Uncle Sam in the courts, a grass-roots group of Fly neighbors and friends from elsewhere are trying to help Ellis raise money so he can offer the government a settlement in return for not taking the farm. They're staging a benefit concert at Nashville's Belcourt Theatre for him this week.

"I have been obsessing about getting back to my own bed," Ellis said.

A discreet mission

Bernard Hopkins Ellis Jr. is clean-shaven, balding and slightly pudgy. He sees the world through oversized spectacles whose round frames are like spokeless bicycle wheels perched on his nose.

He does not look like a stereotypical pot broker.

"I'm not," Ellis said.

After graduating from Vanderbilt University in 1971, Ellis began his career in public health, working in several states and at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md. In 1987 he joined Tennessee's first AIDS program. During that time, when many AIDS patients were "wasting away," he decided to grow marijuana, which some scientific studies have shown curbs nausea as well as reduces pain.

"I just made a decision," he said. He asked social workers who worked with AIDS patients to discreetly let the word out that he had marijuana to share. He eventually began using it himself to relieve the pain of fibromyalgia and degenerative joint disease. And he let his neighbors in the Fly community know his secret.

Thankful for gifts

For many years, Ellis gave marijuana to numbers of very sick and dying people. "I gave it away. I never sold it," he said.

One of the sick people he gave marijuana was Dottie, in 1995. That year the Middle Tennessee woman, who asked that her last name not be used, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

"I had radical surgery and was in great pain. The marijuana would help me on certain days when I didn't want narcotics. I asked my doctors about it and they said it wouldn't hurt," she said.

"Bernie's a good-hearted person. He loves to help people. I was a lucky girl."

Another Middle Tennessee woman, Carolyn, said the marijuana Ellis gave her dying husband improved her husband's quality of life.

"It helped a whole lot. My husband could eat. He could go about his day like a normal day," said Carolyn, who also asked that her last name not be used.

"I think it's a terrible thing they're doing to Bernie. He's paid a pretty high price already so I don't see no use in them taking his home and farm."

Rush to condemn

Among the dozens of letters written in support of Ellis, federal Judge William J. "Joe" Haynes Jr., received one from Douglas Anglin, a professor at the Dave Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles.

When he wrote his letter, Anglin was approaching his 20th year of living with AIDS. He wrote that the marijuana he received "helped me reach this longevity."

Ellis said he has always believed he was doing the right thing by making marijuana available to the sick and dying.

"Marijuana can help. It was very much a part of the pharmacopeia available in this country before the 1930s. My grandfather, who was a doctor in Mississippi, could prescribe cannabis. It was on his (medical) license," Ellis said.

"Now we have condemned it for any use, and by doing so have kept a lot of sick people from finding relief."

The raid took place on a hot summer day, Aug. 28, 2002.

"It was one day after my birthday. It was a heck of a birthday present," Ellis said.

Ellis allowed searches

Court documents indicate Ellis cooperated with the lawmen and allowed them to search his home, vehicle and outbuildings. He eventually pleaded guilty to one count of growing more than 100 plants rather than go to trial.

"What they got from me would have helped two people, maybe three, for a year. That includes me in that number," Ellis said.

According to Americans for Safe Access, an Oakland, Calif., group that advocates the use of medical marijuana, 300,000 people have reported to the group that they use the drug for relief from nausea and pain.

Twelve states now allow patients with certain conditions to use marijuana. New Mexico is the latest, approving such a measure last week.

A medical marijuana law has again been introduced in the Tennessee state legislature — but, as in previous years, it appears to have little chance of passing.

Negotiations under way

Ellis pleaded guilty on Nov. 12, 2003. Haynes gave him four years on probation, including 18 months to be spent in a halfway house, and no fine.

The judge initially denied prosecutors' request to turn the farm over to the government, but the U.S. attorney's office has continued to press its claim.

"This is something that happens when there's a charge involving a controlled substance," said Brent Hanafan, an assistant U.S. attorney.

If the government and Ellis cannot reach a settlement, then the matter goes to trial, said Ellis' lawyer, Peter Strianse.

"The question would be whether it's appropriate for the government to take his farm as punishment for the amount of medical marijuana he was growing," said Strianse.

But a settlement will be hard to come up with. Ellis, who once made six figures annually, is nearly $75,000 in debt, and the government has a lien on the farm, which is assessed for taxes at slightly more than $300,000.

Despite all he has lost and could lose, Ellis is adamant that he broke no moral law, even though he may have stepped across man's law.

The four people he was supplying with marijuana at the time of the raid — three with cancer and a transplant patient — have died. "Three of them died within a year. The fourth died the next year. Some of them tried to get marijuana from other places, but they told me they had to pay for it," he said.

Whether he keeps his farm or loses it, Ellis said he might grow marijuana again, but not in Tennessee if the law does not protect the grower.

"I would hate to leave my home of 40 years to find a state that approved of what I was doing, but I would. From the compassionate perspective, anything that can be done to ease the pain and suffering to terminal cancer patients or HIV/AIDS patients, or MS patients, or people with chronic pain problems, we should."



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