Courts & Crime

Pot dealer returns to prison after six years of freedom

Bryan James Epis, the first person associated with a California cannabis buyers' club to be tried in federal court for growing pot, was ordered back to prison Monday by a Sacramento judge to serve the balance of a 10-year term.

Epis, 42, had been free for nearly six years on an order issued by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after he had served more than two years of the term for growing and conspiring to grow marijuana.

The case, now nearly 13 years old, remains a rallying point for medical marijuana proponents nationwide, who view it as the ultimate injustice to come from the chasm between the state's allowance for medicinal use and a federal policy of zero tolerance.

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

Among the things that made the trial memorable were the contrasting styles of defense lawyer J. Tony Serra, with his trademark passion and florid prose, and prosecutor Samuel Wong, aloof and mostly dispassionate. Wong's cool demeanor cracks, however, when the Epis prosecution is referred to as a medical marijuana case.

His voice rising, Wong said during Monday's hearing, "As the court knows, this is not a medical marijuana case. That term doesn't ever apply to cases of this scope. Mr. Bryan Epis grew and distributed large amounts of marijuana even before the law changed in California."

Epis testified that he started using marijuana in his teens to manage chronic pain from a near-fatal car accident. He testified that he started the growing operation after California voters in 1996 approved Proposition 215, the so-called Compassionate Use Act allowing medicinal use with a doctor's recommendation.

He testified that he and four others with doctors' recommendations were growing pot in his basement for their personal use. Any leftovers were given to a Chico cannabis buyers' club, he said.

Wong argued that Epis' "goal was to go statewide and use Proposition 215 as a shield to manufacture and traffic marijuana" on a large scale. Epis was motivated by profit, not altruism, Wong said.

The 9th Circuit decided in 2004 that Epis should not be in prison while the U.S. Supreme Court was considering another case from California involving medical marijuana. A split high court ruled in that case in 2005 that medical use under state law is trumped by the federal Controlled Substances Act.

The landmark case was brought by Angel McClary Raich, then of Oakland, and Diane Monson of Butte County, and challenged the power of Congress to prohibit personal use of non-commercial pot under the guise of regulating interstate commerce.

"My heart is breaking that Bryan is back in prison," Raich, who now lives in Orinda, said in a telephone interview. "He's such a good guy, and he was trying to do the honorable thing by helping sick people."

Epis was re-sentenced to 10 years in 2007, but remained free on $500,000 bail pending the exhaustion of issues raised in his appeal. The 9th Circuit decided those issues in the government's favor on Aug. 11, the Supreme Court declined to review that ruling, and the circuit then issued its mandate to the court in Sacramento on Jan. 26.

Defense attorney John Balazs asked at Monday's hearing that Epis be given a surrender date so they could explore further legal means of attacking the conviction and sentence. But U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr. rejected the notion.

"It's over, Mr. Epis," the judge told him, and he was escorted to a holding cell by deputy U.S. marshals while his girlfriend and her daughter quietly wept.

Read the full story at the Sacramento Bee.