Bryan James Epis, the first person associated with a California cannabis buyers' club to be tried in federal court for growing pot, must return to prison to serve the balance of a 10-year sentence.
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 a 10-year sentence 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 a state's allowance for medicinal use and the 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.
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. The high court ruled in that case in 2005 that medical use under state law is trumped by the federal Controlled Substances Act.
Epis was re-sentenced in 2007 to 10 years, but was allowed to remain free pending the exhaustion of issues raised in his appeal that were not before the Supreme Court.
The 9th Circuit decided those issues in the government's favor on Aug. 11, the Supreme Court declined on Jan. 19 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 today'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 plea, saying, "He's had every opportunity to talk to lawyers."
"It's over Mr. Epis," Damrell told Epis, and he was escorted to a holding cell by deputy U. S. marshals while his girlfriend and her daughter quietly wept.
By Denny Walsh
February 23, 2010
Chico medical pot grower, Bryan Epis, must return to prison after years of freedom