Now imprisoned, Eddy Lepp sees his supporters dwindle
By Anna Lambias
Charles “Eddy” Lepp is about as rock-star as you can get in the cannabis industry, without actually being a rock star. As soon as Proposition 215 passed in 1996, the 57-year-old Vietnam vet set about growing marijuana on his Upper Lake property, a tiny rural community in Northern California. He eventually cultivated some 32,000 plants for over 2,500 legally authorized patients, in plain view of Highway 20.
The farm was repeatedly raided and Lepp arrested, but each time he got off.
That is, until May 18, when Lepp was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison with five years probation to follow, the result of charges from a 2004 DEA raid. U.S. District Court Judge Marilyn Patel had denied him a medical use defense, as federal courts do not recognize state laws permitting the medical use of marijuana. In addition, she rejected his claim to a religious defense, ruling that the sheer quantity of marijuana created such a high risk that eradicating it was more important than Lepp’s religious freedom.
Lepp was directed to turn himself in to Lompoc federal prison by noon on Monday, July 6.
Over the phone, Lepp sounds like Sam Elliott’s character “The Stranger” from The Big Lebowski. His voice is deep and gravelly, his cadence slow, except for a few quick bursts of profanity-peppered anger whenever the failure of the feds to abide by states rights comes up.
“The people of California recognize marijuana as having medicinal value,” Lepp says. “Our state leaders swore oaths of office that they would do everything they could to uphold our laws…the feds have no jurisdiction. And yet I’m going to prison! How can they do that? How the fuck can these people piss on the constitution?”
But mostly he is calm, even serene, as he explains how he feels about going to prison and what he’s doing to get out. At that very moment, his civil attorney was down in Los Angeles trying to get a last minute hearing to see if Lepp could remain out on bail pending appeal. If that fails, Lepp’s thinking is he will end up doing only 20 to 24 months, maybe even less. His court-appointed appellate lawyer, who is currently sifting through “two pickup trucks” worth of paperwork related to his case, has already filed a motion of notice to appeal. According to Lepp, he has about five bones of contention strong enough for a direct reversal of his conviction.
“I am very, very, very confident that I will at least get a new trial,” he says. “Will it do me any good? I don’t know. Ed Rosenthal was reconvicted, but maybe things will be better with this new administration.”
Speaking of the new president, who freely admits to having smoked pot as a teenager, Lepp’s supporters have already sent Obama more than 7,000 letters requesting a pardon.
There’s also a “big-ass party to celebrate freedom” being thrown on the Fourth of July in Lepp’s honor. It will be held on Lepp’s property but he isn’t doing anything to organize it. He’s heard that Sen Dog of Cypress Hill and Daddy X of the Kottonmouth Kings, among other notables, may be attending. With music, food, and vendors, the event is ostensibly a donation-based fundraiser for Lepp’s appeal efforts, but he emphasizes that the real focus is simply freedom. “We have the right to party,” he says with a chuckle.
That said, he also notes that it looks like this party will have less people in attendance than other parties he and his clan have thrown.
One has to wonder why. Maybe it’s the economy. Or maybe it’s a quick and deliberate distancing from a man who lost the fight. Lepp’s ministry, the Multi Denominational Ministry of Cannabis & Rastafari, once had about 8,000 members. It’s now down to about 300 members who come and go.
But Lepp understands.
“Maybe 80 percent of them are very sick and on fixed incomes subsidized by the federal government,” he says. “The money disappears if they are convicted of a drug crime. They can’t afford to go down with me. But most of them still call us occasionally…we get a lot of love, even if they aren’t here.”
Given his pending incarceration, then, does Lepp still feel it was all worth it?
“I don’t feel I’ve done everything right, but I would do it all again tomorrow,” he says. “Someone has to say, ‘You know what, you sons of bitches, this has got to stop.’ I would be lying if I told you I was looking forward to it, but I am not afraid of jail. They’ll have my shell behind a fence, but my spirit will be out here with my family. I’ve broken no laws and we’re going to keep doing everything we can to get me out. I am full of hope.”
Eddy Lepp is in prison.
On the morning he turned himself in, he told a friend, writer Charles Lynch, that the judge didn’t even read the motion about his release on bail pending appeal before denying it.
A week later, Lepp’s wife, Linda, is tired. Her home phone rings nonstop, including calls from people yelling at her as if Eddy’s incarceration is somehow her fault.
“It’s been a ride, let me tell you,” she says. “Eddy called me a couple days ago and yelled at me — he threw his back out and they wouldn’t give him meds or let him use a cane. The first day, they told him they knew how he was and that if he caused any trouble, they would put him in solitary for 10 years. At first he was pretty depressed, but now he’s doing a little better. He’s Eddy and he has a lot of people on his side in there.”
That’s a good thing, because the appellate lawyer had just informed Linda that Lepp’s appeal likely won’t get going until June 2010. Linda also isn’t holding her breath for a pardon, as presidents usually reserve this practice for when they leave office. Instead, they’re hoping to have the sentence commuted, based on the fact that Eddy has been under the gun since 2002.
As to sweeping drug law reform, Linda doubts that Obama will personally get involved in changing the status of medical marijuana, at least until after he is reelected.
“It wouldn’t be smart for him politically,” she says. “I understand. But in the meantime, my husband is in jail.”