Medical marijuana activist freed

August 09, 2004

Denny Walsh, Sacramento Bee

At 3:58 p.m. Monday, Bryan James Epis, whose trial and conviction in Sacramento made him a symbol of the federal government's war on medical marijuana, walked out of prison.

Sentenced to 10 years, he was behind bars for two years and one month before a federal appellate panel Monday ordered him freed until the U.S. Supreme Court decides the fate of state-sanctioned medical marijuana cooperatives that operate wholly within California.

In a brief telephone interview two hours after his release, the 37-year-old Epis said he was grateful to be out, and was looking forward to a reunion with his 11-year-old daughter, Ashley.

'I'm in Los Angeles and getting ready to have a beer,' he said. 'How cool is that?'

Word of his release spread rapidly, and his San Francisco appeals attorney, Brenda Grantland, was busy late Monday fielding calls from reporters and members of the medical marijuana community.

'It looks real good for Bryan,' she said in a telephone interview. 'I'm prepared to predict that he won't do another day in prison.'

While Epis' appeal was pending before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the panel ruled in another case that federal authorities have no power to go after noncommercial medical marijuana operations confined to a state. The Epis appeal raises the same issue.

The Supreme Court has scheduled a review of the other case during its next term, which begins in October.

Once the three 9th Circuit judges granted her motion for bail Monday, Grantland spent hours on the phone convincing federal prison officials that her client could be released on already-existing bail.

Epis' mother posted property valued at $500,000 when he was arrested in 1997, and the bond is still in place.

He holds electrical engineering and law degrees and had no prior criminal record. But, after a jury found him guilty of conspiring to grow at least 1,000 marijuana plants and growing at least 100 plants in his Chico home, U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr. was obligated by federal sentencing mandates to impose 10 years.

Epis denied there was a conspiracy and testified that he and four other people, all with physician's recommendations in conformance with California's Compassionate Use Act, were growing the pot for their own treatment. Whatever was left over was given to a Chico cannabis club Epis helped establish for distribution to its patients, he insisted.

But there is zero tolerance in federal law for medicinal pot, and Damrell instructed the jury to disregard all mention of it during the trial.

Epis started using marijuana to manage chronic back pain from a car accident.

Asked Monday about the health care he received at the correctional facility at Terminal Island near Los Angeles, he said: 'Prison is not the place to be if you're hurting. With pain, you have to be stoic.

'All I could do was a lot of stretching exercises, and keep telling myself it would be over someday.'

Epis and Grantland will hold a press conference in front of Sacramento's U.S. Courthouse at 10 a.m. today.




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