A cannabis warrior returns

After losing everything, activist Eddy Lepp emerges from imprisonment to find a cannabis-friendly California

Eddy Lepp has lived through raids and imprisonment to help broaden acceptance of cannabis.

Eddy Lepp has lived through raids and imprisonment to help broaden acceptance of cannabis.

Photo by lucas fitzgerald

As Eddy Lepp’s second wife Linda Senti battled thyroid cancer, she feared for her husband.

She knew that for two decades Lepp had anchored in every mind-altering substance imaginable to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder from his service in the Vietnam War. Senti watched him eventually clean up completely, but she worried that her death could spiral him back into hard drugs and booze.

In those moments, Lepp would reply in his own way.

“Listen,” he’d say, “There’s nothing so fucking bad in the world, including you dying, that I’m going to let fuck up my day.”

And she would reply, each time for 12 years until she passed in 2007: “Good. I don’t want it to.”

That promise was Lepp’s way of assuring Senti that her efforts weren’t in vain, but it also, in part, inspirits the embattled California activist for his next fight with the federal government.

The other part is marijuana. Spiritually, Lepp considers it to be the tree of life, God’s gift to his children. Lepp used cannabis to treat Senti’s cancer in lieu of chemotherapy, which he believes allowed her to live several years longer than her doctors anticipated.

“When you live this and you see it and you understand it, it saddens you when you realize how many people don’t have that benefit,” he said. “Because the government has made this most sacred and most beautiful of all plants into some heinous drug, when that’s not the case at all.”

In 20 years, Lepp’s bouts with law enforcement made him a freedom fighter for the legalization movement. Months after Proposition 215 legalized medical marijuana in 1996, he became the first person to be arrested, tried and acquitted for his grow in Upper Lake, called Eddy’s Medicinal Gardens, which he displayed in clear view of Highway 20.

Between 1996 and 2005, Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided Lepp’s grow four times, seizing the largest amount of plants in 2004 (3,524) and 2005 (around 11,000). Lepp had argued that his garden, a medical co-op that supplied pot to around 2,800 patients, was legal under Prop. 215 and protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, since it belonged to his Rastafarian ministry, providing members weed as their sacrament.

In 2009, he was convicted on federal felony charges resulting from the raids and sentenced to two concurrent terms of 10 years in prison, with five years of probation.

While imprisoned, he lost nearly everything. The banks sold his Upper Lake home in foreclosure. The government cut his Social Security and veteran’s benefits. He lost his ministry, along with countless family members and friends who passed away, including his mother and his best friend Jack Herer, the famed hemp activist.

“I am certainly sorry I lost it all,” Lepp said. “But if that’s the price I had to pay ultimately to have this plant receive the respect and acknowledgment that it so greatly deserves, then it was a small price to pay.”

On a rainy afternoon, Lepp sat couched in his new digs, a third-floor Howe Avenue office space tucked inside CANaccelerate, a consulting group for cannabis entrepreneurs. He’s under house arrest until his probation begins June 2.

The irony didn’t escape him. Having served eight years, Lepp was released in December, not a month after Californians voted in Proposition 64, which, aside from allowing recreational pot, eliminated most marijuana-related penalties and could retroactively reduce prison sentences.

“I was told all the way through prison … that the only thing I did wrong was be 15 years early,” Lepp said.

In 2008, Herer and Lepp authored a failed California ballot proposal to legalize pot across-the-board. Lepp blasted Proposition 64, saying that it allows for government and large corporations to hijack the once-grassroots industry.

“It opens the door for big business to come in and wipe out the small guy, and this entire movement has been … founded on the mom-and-pop operation,” Lepp said. “It’s also opened the doors for the government to go out of control.”

It’s different if you’re running a church, though. Lepp’s office is the Sacramento branch of the Oklevueha Native American of Sugar Leaf Rastafarian Church. Lepp is listed as the treasurer and acts as a spiritual adviser, and Heidi Grossman, his fiancé, is its reverend. Lepp and Grossman said that the cannabis church is intended solely for religious practice.

“[The Catholic Church is] selling everybody on the idea that wine is the blood of Jesus Christ, and that the little wafer is his flesh,” Lepp said. “What’s the difference between that and us trying to convince people that marijuana is in fact the holy sacrament?”

At 64 years old, Lepp remembers when California’s cannabis market budded fearfully, when growers mostly operated guerilla-style in national forests, and doctors and lawyers refused to advertise medical marijuana services openly. He’s confident that his work helped to bring that culture out of hiding.

“[Linda] used to say, ’Honey, you’re not the cutting edge,” Lepp said. “’You are the point of the sword.’ I suppose there’s quite a bit of truth to that. I never have been a follower. I’ve always been a leader, and I’ve always felt that we have certain inalienable rights, but if we don’t have the courage and strength to stand up for them, we don’t necessarily deserve them.”