Back in the slammer

Effort to free Bryan Epis continues

Monica Focht, left, and Ashley Epis continue to work to free Bryan Epis (below).

Monica Focht, left, and Ashley Epis continue to work to free Bryan Epis (below).

Photo By Robert Speer

For a time Bryan Epis was a hero among medical-marijuana activists. Now he’s more like a martyr to the cause.

That’s because, after an epic legal battle lasting since his arrest for marijuana cultivation nearly 13 years ago, in June 1997, the Chico man is now back in prison, ordered in February to serve out his original 10-year sentence. More precisely, he’s in the Sacramento County Jail, waiting transfer to a state prison.

To his longtime girlfriend, Monica Focht, and his 16-year-old daughter, Ashley, it seems terribly unfair that, at a time when anyone can go online and find the addresses of hundreds of collectives and dispensaries selling marijuana up and down the state, he’s in custody facing several more years of confinement for growing medical marijuana.

And they’re at a loss to understand why he’s being held in the notoriously grungy county jail. He’d been on probation and bail for more than five years and never missed a court date, so he clearly wasn’t a flight risk. Why, they wonder, wasn’t he just ordered to report directly to federal prison, as most nonviolent federal offenders are, rather than put in jail?

And they’re still trying to get him set free. Money is a big problem. Epis and his family have spent more than $200,000 on his defense, and his current lawyer wants cash on the barrelhead. He is preparing a habeas corpus writ and also a pardon petition to be sent to President Obama; his current fee is $35,000.

From his jail cell, Epis has sent a letter to as many cannabis dispensary operators as possible, asking them to ask each of their members to contribute $1 to his legal defense, in care of his mother, Barbara Epis, and addressed to Bryan Epis, 227 W. 22nd St., Chico, CA 95928. He is also asking those members to use his business, a hotel booking site,, to make reservations, for which the dispensaries can receive a “10 percent cash back” pinch of the revenues.

Bryan Epis is a historic figure of sorts—the first person arrested for growing medical marijuana following passage of Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act, in 1996. He was caught growing 458 plants, most of them seedlings, in the basement of his home on West Frances Willard in the Mansion District.

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Five men were involved in the grow, and each had a doctor’s recommendation. Only Epis could be tied to directly to the plants, however, so only he was charged.

Local law-enforcement officials, led by District Attorney Mike Ramsey, quickly turned his case over to the federal courts, which don’t recognize Prop 215. The most serious charge was conspiracy to manufacture 1,000 plants within 1,000 feet of a school (Chico High).

For five years, Epis was out on bail, awaiting trial. When finally he came before U.S. District Court Judge Frank Damrell, in 2002, he was not allowed to mention medical marijuana. Prosecutors presented a document Epis had drafted but never acted on that described a possible medi-pot dispensary in Silicon Valley as proof that he intended a much larger business in Chico, and the jury bought it.

He was sentenced to the mandatory minimum, 10 years. He spent 25 months in prisons on Terminal Island and at Lompoc before being freed because of a U.S. Supreme Court case challenging the federal stance on medical marijuana.

Once that was decided in the feds’ favor, Epis was back before Damrell for reconsideration. It took three years, but on Feb. 22 the judge ordered him back to prison. With time served and good-behavior credits, he could be out in five years.

Monica Focht and Ashley Epis visit Epis twice a week in Sacramento, but they’re eager for him to be transferred to Lompoc, even though it’s farther away. There they’ll be able to touch each other, rather than talk on telephones through a window.

Ashley has grown up feeling the anxiety her father’s tenuous legal status has fostered. She knows him as a warm-hearted man who wouldn’t hurt anyone, who goes out of his way to help others, and who was diligent about cooperating with authorities for so many years.

From her visits to the Sacramento jail, Ashley knows it is “full of violent criminals” and not a place where her father is safe. “I thought it would be over by now,” she said.

Both women wonder why the government thought it was necessary to spend as much as $2 million—their estimate—prosecuting Epis.

If you wish to know more, make a contribution or help with Epis’ pardon petition, go to