Same term for medical pot grower

September 14, 2007

Denny Walsh, Sacramento Bee (CA)

For the second time in five years, Bryan James Epis, the first person associated with a California cannabis buyers' club to be tried in a federal court for growing marijuana, was sentenced Friday in Sacramento to 10 years in prison.

But U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr. denied prosecutor Samuel Wong's request that Epis, 41, be taken into custody immediately. Instead, he set an Oct. 22 hearing on defense attorney Brenda Grantland's forthcoming motion for bail, pending appeal.

Damrell indicated he is leaning toward release, noting that he believes the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals "may have some interest" in issues that Grantland will bring before it.

Grantland told Damrell that, when she previously argued before a three-judge circuit panel, its members were "very interested" in her contention that there was prosecutorial misconduct and perjury by narcotics officers during Epis' 2002 trial.

She is insistent that Wong and the agents deliberately distorted the meaning of documents seized in Epis' house when it was searched June 25, 1997. Wong is equally insistent that he and his agents, with their expertise, are correctly interpreting that Epis had a statewide marketing plan for his marijuana operation.

Damrell also pointed out that the appellate court three years ago ordered Epis released pending appeal after he had served 25 months of the 10-year sentence imposed in October 2002. He has been free since then.

A month earlier, the 9th Circuit had ordered the lower court to reconsider Epis' conviction, taking into consideration a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in another medical marijuana case. Friday's sentencing was a result of that order.

The circuit panel issued the order to release Epis "without comment," Damrell recalled, calling that "unprecedented in my experience. The law requires such an action be supported by exceptional circumstances, so I can only assume that they found exceptional circumstances.

"My suspicion is the 9th Circuit would grant bail again," the judge added.

The prosecutor argued that the circuit court released Epis because he failed to file an opposition to Grantland's motion for release.

In July 2002, a jury found Epis planned to eventually grow at least 1,000 marijuana plants and that he did grow at least 100 plants in the spring of 1997 at his Chico residence. The fact that the house is within 1,000 feet of Chico Senior High School is one reason Epis is not eligible for a term less than 10-year mandatory minimum attached to the 1,000-plant conviction.

"The result is somewhat inevitable in these types of cases," Damrell remarked Friday before he imposed sentence.

The judge made formal findings that Epis lied when he was debriefed by Wong and the agents, and that he was the "linchpin" of the marijuana growing operation in the basement of his Chico house.

Epis testified at trial that he started using marijuana to manage chronic pain from a near-fatal car accident. He also testified that he started the growing operation after California voters approved Proposition 215 -- the initiative that allows medicinal use with a doctor's recommendation -- in November 1996.

He testified that he and four other people with doctors' recommendations were growing the pot for their personal use. Any leftovers were given to a Chico cannabis buyers' club that he helped establish, he said.

The Epis case remains a rallying point for medical marijuana proponents nationwide, who view it as the ultimate injustice to come from the chasm between state law and the zero-tolerance federal law.

"If Proposition 215 had not passed, I wouldn't be standing here today," Epis told Damrell on Friday. "I'm being prosecuted because I have a heart. I've seen too many people suffer and die from cancer and AIDS not to try to help them. I'm not ashamed of what I did, but I am sorry for my family."

Wong said that Epis' "goal was to go statewide and use Proposition 215 as a shield to manufacture and traffic marijuana." The prosecutor said Epis was motivated by profit not altruism.

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