Medical pot advocate celebrates

August 10, 2004

Denny Walsh, Sacramento Bee

A slimmer and arguably wiser Bryan Epis presided Tuesday at an upbeat medical marijuana rally just outside the front doors of the Sacramento federal courthouse.

Medicinal pot advocates have taken some severe beatings in court at the hands of federal agents and prosecutors, including Epis' 2002 conviction on conspiracy and growing charges, but Tuesday was a day of celebration.

Epis, 37, was freed Monday by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after serving two years and one month of a 10-year sentence.

A three-judge panel ordered his release while the U.S. Supreme Court decides the fate of state-sanctioned medical marijuana operations with no ties to interstate commerce. His case is not the one before the high court, but that issue is one of 10 raised in Epis' appeal.

Tuesday's event was organized by Americans for Safe Access, a national grass-roots coalition promoting the rights of patients and doctors. It also reunited Epis with his longtime companion, Cheryl Parker, and their 10-year-old daughter, Ashley Epis.

Ashley, who had come from Chico with her mother, ran into her father's arms as he walked up the steps to the courthouse plaza.

Asked later if the medical pot cause was worth being separated from his family, Epis looked down at his daughter and said, 'Maybe I should have let someone else be the martyr.'

Epis, who smoked pot for chronic pain from injuries suffered in a near-fatal car crash and grew it for other sick people, was the first patient and cultivator convicted in a federal court after passage of the 1996 ballot initiative that legalized doctor-recommended use in California.

Asked for an update on the patients he had been supplying, tears welled in his eyes and his voice broke as he told the crowd of reporters and well-wishers that cancer killed two of them.

He spoke while standing near a marble slab embedded in the courthouse plaza and inscribed with these words: 'A way of life that is odd or even erratic but interferes with no rights or interests of others is not to be condemned because it is different.'

Asked about his immediate plans, Epis said, 'I'm going to write a diet book' spelling out the regimen he adopted in prison that resulted in the loss of his extra poundage.

'Maybe I can help some people that way. I tried another way and look what happened,' he said ruefully.

Epis and his appeals lawyer, Brenda Grantland, waxed optimistic about Epis' chances of remaining out of prison.

Grantland said that, if the Supreme Court affirms the 9th Circuit's ruling that federal authorities have no power to go after noncommercial medical marijuana operations confined to a state, the number of plants attributed to her client's cultivation will drop so low that any term would be equal to or less than the time he has already spent behind bars.

And, Grantland and Epis said, even if the 9th Circuit is reversed on that issue, the appellate panel did not appear very sympathetic to the government's position on other issues when the Epis case was argued before it in June.

That was especially true, they said, of the guilty verdict on an alleged conspiracy by Epis to grow more than 1,000 plants.

Donald P. Lay, a visiting circuit judge from Minnesota, noted 'only 458 plants' were seized when Epis' Chico home was raided. Lay said the contention by Assistant U.S. Attorney Samuel Wong that more would be grown in the future seemed 'kind of tenuous.'



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