Prison No Place for Pot Patients

June 11, 2004
Since medical marijuana patient and caregiver Bryan Epis was sentenced in October 2002 to a mandatory minimum of ten years in prison, his case has become the prime example of how far – and how wrong – the federal government can go in prosecuting its war on drugs. The injustice of his sentence now gets routine mention in editorials, columns and letters-to-the-editor, and his name has become a rallying cry for a movement that is gaining momentum. Meanwhile, the 37-year-old Chico man sits in federal prison, denied watching his now 9-year-old daughter grow up, for the crime of growing the marijuana his doctor recommended and helping other patients. But an appeals court is getting a chance to right that wrong. 

On Wednesday, June 16th, lawyers for the government and Mr. Epis will square off before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, giving the court that ruled in Raich v. Ashcroft the federal government has no jurisdiction to interfere with the non-commercial growing and distribution of state-legal medical marijuana an opportunity to free him. They should. 

Mr. Epis’s 2002 conviction for conspiring to grow medical marijuana was not only unconstitutional under a line of reasoning similar to that which produced the Raich decision, it was based on misconduct by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Sacramento. The prosecution only obtained the 10-year conspiracy conviction by intentionally misrepresenting documents found on Mr. Epis’s computer, claiming he intended to grow thousands of plants and make millions of dollars, when in fact the number of plants was a small fraction of that and the dispensary he helped out with was non-profit. 

This is what a zealous prosecutor can do with outmoded law and misguided policy. The root of the problem is a thirty-year-old law that says marijuana is more dangerous than morphine or cocaine, with no medical use. Yet science says different. Research has shown it can treat a variety of conditions, and its therapeutic use has been endorsed by leading medical groups, as well as voters. 

Since Bryan Epis’s conviction and sentencing, judges have been finding “safety valves” for sentencing similarly situated defendants. In San Francisco, famed cultivation-columnist Ed Rosenthal got one day. In Los Angeles, three directors of a prominent dispensary got probation. One who supplied that L.A. dispensary got house arrest and another a year and day, with bail pending appeal. Angel Raich and her three co-appellants have received an injunction against federal arrest and prosecution, and a cooperative dispensary in Santa Cruz is now back in business with the blessing of the district court. A Sonoma medical marijuana grower serving 44 months has been released pending appeal under the Raich ruling, and is even allowed to use cannabis while on bail. 

The American people support it, the law in ten states reflects it, and more and more judges are affirming it: medical marijuana patients like Bryan Epis deserve compassion, not federal prison. 

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For more information, contact William Dolphin at (510) 919-1498. A national coalition of 10,000 patients, doctors and advocates, Americans for Safe Access is the largest organization working solely on medical marijuana.

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