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Facing Life for Growing Medical Marijuana

Eddy Lepp Busted by the DEA

by FRED GARDNER

"We’re legal, why don’t we act it?"

Todd McCormick, explaining his attitude after Prop 215 passed. (He would serve three years in federal prison for cultivation.)

Lepptomania, n. 1. Extreme stubbornness in the belief that state law is sovereign over federal law with respect to medical marijuana. 2. Audacity associated with enlarged gonads (obsolete).

On the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 18, word started ricocheting around that Eddy Lepp was being busted by DEA agents at his Upper Lake spread. Thus ended a common topic of speculation in medical mj circles: "Why doesn’t Eddy Lepp get busted?"

Eddy was growing 29,000 plants with no effort at concealment. "It looked like a Christmas tree lot across Highway 20 from his home," according to journalist Pat McCartney, who had visited Eddy 11 days before the bust.

Eddy thought he shouldn’t get busted because he was cultivating legally under California law. He says that 2,000 properly documented patients had authorized him to grow cannabis on their behalf. He is facing life in prison for cultivating and maintaining a residence for the manufacture of a controlled substance. A gun charge may be added, he says, "because they found a little .32."

Charles Eddy Lepp is a 52-year old Vietnam vet who looks older. He has had coronary bypass surgery and talks in a rasp. Over the years he has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress order, manic depression, chronic back pain, skin cancer, and degenerative arthritis. Lepp is compactly built, maybe 5’8", wears his thinning, graying hair in a ponytail, and has a soulful, serious manner that comes through even when he’s dressed in green garments with marijuana motifs.

Clinical lepptomania onset during the campaign to legalize marijuana for medical use in 1996. Lepp and his wife Linda gathered almost 500 signatures for Prop 215. When it passed, soon as the soil in his yard was warm, Eddy put in 51 plants for use by himself and two other qualified patients, intending to donate any surplus to Dennis Peron’s SF Cannabis Buyers Club. He was arrested by Lake County authorities that summer–1997–and charged in Superior Court with cultivation and intent to sell. A jury of his peers acquitted him.

"The reason they couldn’t convict me was that they looked at me and saw themselves, their mother, their brother, their sister," Lepp said at the time. "I told them, ‘I’ve done nothing wrong. I’m like you.’ I’m a white middle class goddamn war hero, military intelligence. I have letters of support from the V.A., with combat duty in Vietnam in 1972. Ninety percent of what’s wrong with me can be traced to my service years. I need marijuana. When I take pain pills–I’d have to take hundreds a month–it tears me up. I get bad when I drink alcohol. On weed, I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like me."

Lepp was permitted to grow in relative peace for a few years; then in August, 2002 Lake County called in the DEA to raid him. They confiscated 266 plants but declined to file charges–re-enforcing Lepp’s view that the law was really on his side. Eddy and his wife are suing the DEA for return of his plants, property taken during the raid, and $67 million in damages. They have drawn U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker, the judge most likely to be sympathetic to Lepps’ claim that the raid on his property stemmed from a conspiracy between federal, state and local law enforcers to violate California law.

Eddy’s belief in the legality of his approach was re-enforced further in March 2003 when a Superior Court judge ordered the California Highway Patrol to return marijuana seized from Lepp during a traffic stop. The CHP claimed that to hand over the controlled substance would violate federal law. Lepp, representing himself, had made a state’s rights argument. (He’s suing the CHP, too.)

The clincher for Lepp came in October 2003 when the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in U.S. v. Raich and Monson that the federal government had no jurisdiction in cases not involving interstate commerce, i.e., when marijuana is grown in California for consumption by California patients.

Lepp figured the Raich ruling (which the Bush Administration has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn) entitled him to grow for as many patients as he could get to designate him as their caregiver. He formed a non-profit –Eddy’s Medicinal Gardens and Multi-Denominational Chapel of Cannabis and Rastafari–and began signing up patients. "He recruited qualified patients from across the state," according to McCartney, "holding seminars at which he told them, ‘Let me take the risk for you.’ Lepp said his goal was to lower the price of medical marijuana. Payment of $500 per plant, an estimated $30 an ounce, was due by Sept. 1. Lepp gathered 2,000 recommendations in all."

The DEA arrived at Lepp’s house a little after 7 a.m. Aug. 18. Lepp says he saw the convoy of SUVs coming down his driveway and had time to awaken everyone in the house and warn them to put their hands up and be cooperative. When he opened the front door and asked to see a warrant, he says, the lead agent slapped him in the face, knocking his cigarette out of his mouth. It was payback, Lepp thinks, for his having "ordered this gentleman off my property" a few days earlier.

About a dozen federal narcs, dressed in black with guns drawn, stormed in to search the place and arrest everyone. Lepp says the warrant was totally blank except for his name and a judge’s signature. He questions its legality.

Lepp says the DEA squad was accompanied by another dozen or so Lake County and state Bureau of Narcotics officers. They chose not to hassle about 15 people on the property–Asian field workers and a Hispanic construction crew. Lepp and 12 members of his "house crew" were taken to the Lake County jail. The house-crew members were held for a few hours and released after signing a document stating that they’d been "detained for public intoxication."

Lepp was held for about 20 hours, then transported to the federal building in San Francisco where attorney Dennis Roberts promptly negotiated his release. (Bail arrangements were made at a hearing on Aug. 26; a not-rich woman from Clearlake is putting up her $100,000 house. Lepp couldn’t surrender his passport because the DEA took it in the raid, said his lawyer. The judge ordered him to stay in the U.S.)

Lepp will be arraigned in October and it seems likely that he’ll be indicted. He thinks he can beat the rap on at least three grounds: violation of the Raich ruling, illegal search warrant, and Congress’s failure to formally adopt the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (an original theory he has been researching).

According to Bill McPike, a Merced-based lawyer who will help defend Lepp, "Attorney General Bill Lockyer has failed in his constitutional duty to uniformly apply the medical marijuana law. We have 58 counties and 58 district attorneys and 58 sheriffs. Bill Lockyer is their boss. If he said ‘Don’t arrest for growing a certain number of plants, or possessing a certain amount,’ that would be it. And if they [the cops and DAs] get out of line, he should prosecute them. And he should also see to it that local sheriffs and police chiefs do not cooperate with the foreign federal government to conspire to violate our state law. He’s failed to do that. Eddy, by trying comply with Prop 215, is doing the Attorney General’s job for him: upholding state law."

Lepp made it up to Seattle for the weekend HempFest August 21-22. He arrived in a green stretch limousine, leading a convoy of loyal crew members. Eddy’s Medicinal Gardens had rented a large booth, and neither the rainclouds above nor the events of the past week could stop the crew from publicizing their operation. Some were vowing to re-plant immediately, although the rains are due soon and the length of day will trigger flowering instead of vegetative growth.

Pat McCartney says he will forever cherish the memory of Eddy, in his long green robe, proclaiming, "I’m not in trouble with the feds, they’re in trouble with me."

How Eddy Got Involved

As told by Eddy to Preston Peet after his 2002 bust: "I first started using marijuana over in Vietnam. I won’t go into details, but they had some amazing shit over there. Smoking allowed me to keep myself well. Later on, I would kind of smoke it socially but I was drinking heavily for years. Then in about 1987 or 1988 my Dad got cancer. He underwent 14 major operations in about 14 months. After getting out of the hospital, he lived about another year before he died. During that year, he was living on Ensure, the protein drinks. The only way I could get him to drink the stuff was to roll up a big ol’ fatty and shove it in his tracheotomy tube. One of my fondest memories of my father is him walking around with a big fatty I rolled stuck in his trach tube choking down his Ensures. That’s when I first got involved with it in a medical aspect.

"My daughter was a caretaker for a young gentleman who got AIDS back in the beginning of the AIDS epidemic when it was truly a terrible thing and they had no control over it at all. Through him, I was introduced to Dennis Peron. A while later Dennis came up with this wild, hare brained idea which ended up being Proposition 215. When they started gathering signatures, I got involved and helped gather signatures. My wife Linda and I gathered almost 500 signatures ourselves to help get it on the ballot. Dennis and I wound up being pretty good friends because we’re both Vietnam vets. After Prop. 215 passed, it wasn’t long before I got arrested."

FRED GARDNER can be reached at fred@plebesite.com