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What do you do when your defense in a medical marijuana case goes up in smoke? Monkey-wrench the jury. That’s what an admitted marijuana grower is accused of doing in a California case with help from colleagues in the medical-marijuana movement and advocates of jury nullification. In a Sacramento, Calif., courthouse demonstration promoted by the defendant on his Web site, picketers distributed a handout in which the defendant stated that his defense argument had been disallowed and supporters should “protest the federal government crackdown on California Medical Cannabis Dispensaries.” Also handed out was a pamphlet describing how juries could nullify the law and vote their consciences. The literature got into the hands of prospective jurors, infuriating U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr. of the Eastern District of California, who dismissed the 42-member panel and charged the defendant with criminal contempt. That left defendant Bryan Epis facing a sentence of 10 years to life for allegedly growing 458 marijuana plants in the basement of his mother’s Chico, Calif., home, plus a year or more if convicted of trying influence the jury, said defense counsel J. Tony Serra of San Francisco. A new jury was empaneled, and the judge ordered jurors to be transported to the courthouse to avoid protesters, Serra said. The trial continues at press time. Though Epis, on his Web site, called for the demonstrations and promised placards, he “had no idea” supporters would print his comments about the case and hand them out at the courthouse, Serra said. “He never expected it and never asked for it,” Serra said. It was “a complete no-no.” The case is the federal government’s first prosecution of a California medical marijuana supplier, Serra said. Others are pending. “It’s a very politically charged situation,” he said. Epis, 35, who has electrical engineering and law degrees and also runs a separate travel-guide Web site, wrote this recent addendum about his case: “Someone printed out this Web page and handed it out in front of the courthouse on Monday, June 24, and I got in big trouble for it. I didn’t ask anyone to do this. If you come [to] protest, PLEASE don’t hand out any literature whatsoever.” The lead prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Samuel Wong, did not return a call. John K. Vincent, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California, declined comment through a spokesman. The indictment alleges that Epis conspired to cultivate more than 1,000 plants and cultivated more than 100 plants within 1,000 feet of a school. U.S. v. Epis, No. 97-CR-381 (E.D. Calif.). POT FLASH POINT The Epis case is a flash point in the collision between California and federal law on the subject of marijuana distribution. Co-founder of the Chico Medical Marijuana Caregivers, Epis planned to sell the marijuana to medically needy AIDS and other patients who claim pot eases their pain, said Serra. The Chico group was among several that popped up after California voters passed Proposition 215 in 1996, which allowed marijuana with a doctor’s authorization. But the feds didn’t see eye-to-eye with California voters. In a case brought by the Justice Department, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in 2000 that there is no medical-necessity exception to the federal ban on the manufacture and distribution of marijuana. As recently as June, the feds won a permanent injunction in this ongoing case, shutting down pot clubs in Oakland, Calif., among other places. U.S. v. Cannabis Cultivators Club, nos. 98-85, 98-86, 98-87, 98-88 and 98-245 (N.D. Calif.). Medical marijuana distributors who stayed in business after the 2000 ruling thought that, if arrested, they still might offer a medical-necessity defense, said Serra. The high court case was a civil enforcement, not a criminal prosecution, Serra noted. “I thought I had an argument, but we’ve been prevented from making it” in the Epis trial, he said. Notwithstanding the judge’s ruling disallowing a medical marijuana defense, Serra said he has been able to get in a couple of mentions. “I’m going to trial. I don’t have a defense,” said Serra. “I want the jury to know that under state law, it’s legal.”

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