Epis bails out on landmark ruling
Chico medical-marijuana advocate Bryan Epis, who in 2002 received a 10-year sentence in federal prison for growing marijuana, was released on bail Monday by order of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Interviewed within an hour of his release, Epis said it felt “really good” to be out of prison and expressed hope that his release would mark a turning point in the federal government’s attitude toward medical marijuana.
“I’m feeling pretty good right now, I’ll tell you that,” he said. “I just got out of virtual hell. [But] I’ve basically done all the time I’m going to do.”
Epis’ case is being watched closely by medpot advocates and drug warriors alike for signs of which way the justice system is headed over the issue of medical marijuana. Arrested in 1997 for growing marijuana in a Chico house he shared with four other medical-marijuana patients, Epis was the first medpot patient in California to be tried and convicted in federal court for violating the Controlled Substances Act. Although he maintained his actions were legal under California law, the federal government does not recognize a medical-marijuana defense, which meant that no mention of his status as a patient could be raised in court.
Convicted of conspiracy to grow 1,000 plants, Epis received a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years. When the CN&R last interviewed Epis, he lamented the fact that he turned down a plea deal offered by federal prosecutors, electing to plead innocent even while knowing that without a medical defense a jury could only assume that he was growing marijuana for profit. When reached Monday, Epis said his faith in justice had been renewed.
“When I didn’t get bail pending appeal, I temporarily lost hope in the system and what justice should be,” he said. “I was in bad shape there for two or three months, until I pulled myself out of it and started working on my appeal.”
Epis’ release is not unconditional. He is out on $500,000 bail pending a Supreme Court decision on a case that should decide whether the federal government’s drug laws override state laws allowing for medical marijuana. That case, Raich vs. Ashcroft, was brought by a pair of medical-pot patients—one of whom resides in Oroville—to the 9th Circuit Court last year and is based on the premise that the cultivation of marijuana for personal use has no effect on interstate commerce and thus is outside of federal jurisdiction. The top court will decide the case sometime within the next 10 months, at which time Epis will be free to appeal his case.
Brenda Grantland, Epis’ Mill Valley attorney, said Epis’ release on bail bodes well for the medical-marijuana movement.
“It means the feds will not be prosecuting these people any more. It’s a very strong sign that the 9th Circuit is saying, ‘You can’t do this to people, at least until the Supreme Court decides Raich,’ she said. Grantland added that Epis still has a few legal hurdles to clear, issues that could put him back in prison for what she said would be “no more than three months.”
Epis attended a rally at the state Capitol Tuesday before heading back to Chico to be with his family and friends. Epis, who holds degrees in law and electrical engineering, said it was painful to be away from his 11-year-old daughter Ashley but that he was never idle behind bars. He spent much of his time exercising and researching his case, he said, in addition to beginning to write a diet book.
“It’s going to be the best diet book ever,” he said. “I was starting to take a distance learning course in applied nutrition. I was definitely making the most of my time. It’s the only thing that kept me going, so I could say, ‘At least they’re not cheating me out of everything.'”
Epis said he isn’t sure if he will be allowed to smoke medicinal marijuana while he is out, but that he is going to speak out about its benefits in any case.
“I’m going to exercise my First Amendment rights to say things. I’m not going to do anything illegal. My case is basically being held in limbo until the Supreme Court decides Raich. There are people all over the state opening up dispensaries, but I wouldn’t try it in Butte County until Raich vs. Ashcroft is decided. I wouldn’t do anything in Butte County."