ON WEDNESDAY, December 7, 2016, a man you have probably never heard of left a federal prison after serving eight and a half years of a 10-year sentence. His name is Eddy Lepp, and he was arrested and convicted for growing medical cannabis plants in California. To be more specific, he was arrested and convicted for growing 32,524 medical cannabis plants, which had a street value of $18 million (five months later, 11,000 more plants were seized). This was believed to constitute the largest medical cannabis grow seizure in US history.
Eddy Lepp is a badass, and it would behoove cannabis producers in Oregon and elsewhere to learn from his example. He’s a Vietnam veteran, and until 2002 he grew more than 50 strains of cannabis on his 20-acre farm, dubbed Eddy’s Medicinal Gardens. The farm was 150 miles from San Francisco, near the Mendocino National Forest. Lepp, an ordained Rastafarian minister, and several tenants on his property tended the crops. All being Rastafarian, the group of growers eschewed alcohol and all other drugs.
The grow op was far from clandestine, as anyone driving by on Highway 20 could easily see the massive crop. But Lepp wasn’t banking fat stacks. He donated most of the crop to people who had medical needs. Lepp also used some of his weed to treat his PTSD, and to treat what sadly turned out to be the terminal cancer of his late wife, Linda.
But that all changed one morning in February 2002, when a team of 34 different law enforcement officials, from more agencies than I can list here, raided Eddy’s Medicinal Gardens.
Lepp went to trial, where he refused to disavow what he had been doing. Only one other grower on the farm stepped up to take responsibility. Lepp claimed that what he had been doing was legal, as the plants had been for the use of the membership of the Multi Denominational Ministry of Cannabis and Rastafari (which sounds like a church I would actually check out). Although Lepp would not admit to the charges of cultivation and distribution, he was found guilty by a jury.
Since there were more than 1,000 plants, the charges against Lepp were federal. He rejected a deal that would have resulted in a shorter prison sentence—as they wanted Lepp to admit wrongdoing, he refused, believing he had done nothing wrong.
The judge sentenced him to 10 years, the minimum mandatory. “I would rather do 10 years and be able to look at myself in the eyes than never be able to look myself in the eyes again,” Lepp said at the time. (Again—badass.)
During that time, Lepp lost everything. The government seized and sold off his farm, cars, and possessions. His wife Linda died from the cancer that Lepp had been helping her treat; he believes her illness returned because of the stress of his arrest and conviction. While locked in a cage, his mother, grandmother, and mother-in-law all passed, along with his best friend, cannabis activist Jack Herer.
Lepp emerges into a very changed world. In November, California voters passed Measure 64, legalizing recreational adult use of cannabis. On January 1, 2018, the state will begin issuing commercial grow licenses, and beginning January 1, 2023, Type 5 licenses will be issued, for large cultivators who will not be limited by any size requirements. “They’ll be growing more plants than Eddy ever did,” Lepp’s attorney, Michael Hinckley, told the Cannifornian. “And they’ll be making a profit, instead of doing it for religious and medical reasons.”
Recreational growers in Oregon and every other state with adult use programs would be well served to remember that they are able to grow legally because of people like Eddy Lepp. We gained acceptance for recreational use because he and people like him showed the plant has legitimate medical use. It would be fantastic to see those profiting from new recreational cannabis programs remember this, and help support those who came before. Lepp is free now, but many others are not.
We are about to enter a period when freedoms of all types will be under attack. Let’s not forget those who were forced to give up their freedoms because they grew a fucking plant.
[If you'd like to support Mr. Lepp, please visit his GoFundMe page.]