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21/04/2007 16:00:00

US: Pot grower who may lose farm says his only crime was caring

Bernie Ellis is an unrepentant soul.

"I remain unashamed of what I was doing," he said on a recent afternoon,
the first warm day since dogwood winter settled on the month of April.
He sat on a deck at a West Meade home where he has been employed as a
landscaper for several months.

When lawmen raided his farm in August 2002, this man of medicine — a
professional public health consultant who has worked for anti-substance
abuse programs across the country — told officers he was growing
marijuana for medical reasons. He also gave it to friends and
acquaintances suffering from AIDS, cancer or chronic diseases.

Now, with less than three weeks remaining on his 18-month halfway house
sentence, Ellis is anxious to return to the 187 acres he's owned in the
Fly community of northwestern Maury County for the past four decades.
But he's not sure he'll get the chance.

Federal prosecutors want to take away his farm under laws that let the
government seize property used in the commission of a crime.

He and his lawyer think that punishment is too harsh for the crime to
which Ellis pleaded guilty. Yes, what he did was against the law, he
says, but he wasn't dealing drugs for profit — he was helping relieve
the pain of people who were dying and in severe pain.

While his attorney fights Uncle Sam in the courts, a grass-roots group
of Fly neighbors and friends from elsewhere are trying to help Ellis
raise money so he can offer the government a settlement in return for
not taking the farm. They're staging a benefit concert at Nashville's
Belcourt Theatre for him this week.

"I have been obsessing about getting back to my own bed," Ellis said.

A discreet mission

Bernard Hopkins Ellis Jr. is clean-shaven, balding and slightly pudgy.
He sees the world through oversized spectacles whose round frames are
like spokeless bicycle wheels perched on his nose.

He does not look like a stereotypical pot broker.

"I'm not," Ellis said.

After graduating from Vanderbilt University in 1971, Ellis began his
career in public health, working in several states and at the National
Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md. In 1987 he joined Tennessee's first
AIDS program. During that time, when many AIDS patients were "wasting
away," he decided to grow marijuana, which some scientific studies have
shown curbs nausea as well as reduces pain.

"I just made a decision," he said. He asked social workers who worked
with AIDS patients to discreetly let the word out that he had marijuana
to share. He eventually began using it himself to relieve the pain of
fibromyalgia and degenerative joint disease. And he let his neighbors in
the Fly community know his secret.

Thankful for gifts

For many years, Ellis gave marijuana to numbers of very sick and dying
people. "I gave it away. I never sold it," he said.

One of the sick people he gave marijuana was Dottie, in 1995. That year
the Middle Tennessee woman, who asked that her last name not be used,
was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

"I had radical surgery and was in great pain. The marijuana would help
me on certain days when I didn't want narcotics. I asked my doctors
about it and they said it wouldn't hurt," she said.

"Bernie's a good-hearted person. He loves to help people. I was a lucky

Another Middle Tennessee woman, Carolyn, said the marijuana Ellis gave
her dying husband improved her husband's quality of life.

"It helped a whole lot. My husband could eat. He could go about his day
like a normal day," said Carolyn, who also asked that her last name not
be used.

"I think it's a terrible thing they're doing to Bernie. He's paid a
pretty high price already so I don't see no use in them taking his home
and farm."

Rush to condemn

Among the dozens of letters written in support of Ellis, federal Judge
William J. "Joe" Haynes Jr., received one from Douglas Anglin, a
professor at the Dave Geffen School of Medicine at the University of
California at Los Angeles.

When he wrote his letter, Anglin was approaching his 20th year of living
with AIDS. He wrote that the marijuana he received "helped me reach this

Ellis said he has always believed he was doing the right thing by making
marijuana available to the sick and dying.

"Marijuana can help. It was very much a part of the pharmacopeia
available in this country before the 1930s. My grandfather, who was a
doctor in Mississippi, could prescribe cannabis. It was on his (medical)
license," Ellis said.

"Now we have condemned it for any use, and by doing so have kept a lot
of sick people from finding relief."

The raid took place on a hot summer day, Aug. 28, 2002.

"It was one day after my birthday. It was a heck of a birthday present,"
Ellis said.

Ellis allowed searches

Court documents indicate Ellis cooperated with the lawmen and allowed
them to search his home, vehicle and outbuildings. He eventually pleaded
guilty to one count of growing more than 100 plants rather than go to trial.

"What they got from me would have helped two people, maybe three, for a
year. That includes me in that number," Ellis said.

According to Americans for Safe Access, an Oakland, Calif., group that
advocates the use of medical marijuana, 300,000 people have reported to
the group that they use the drug for relief from nausea and pain.

Twelve states now allow patients with certain conditions to use
marijuana. New Mexico is the latest, approving such a measure last week.

A medical marijuana law has again been introduced in the Tennessee state
legislature — but, as in previous years, it appears to have little
chance of passing.

Negotiations under way

Ellis pleaded guilty on Nov. 12, 2003. Haynes gave him four years on
probation, including 18 months to be spent in a halfway house, and no fine.

The judge initially denied prosecutors' request to turn the farm over to
the government, but the U.S. attorney's office has continued to press
its claim.

"This is something that happens when there's a charge involving a
controlled substance," said Brent Hanafan, an assistant U.S. attorney.

If the government and Ellis cannot reach a settlement, then the matter
goes to trial, said Ellis' lawyer, Peter Strianse.

"The question would be whether it's appropriate for the government to
take his farm as punishment for the amount of medical marijuana he was
growing," said Strianse.

But a settlement will be hard to come up with. Ellis, who once made six
figures annually, is nearly $75,000 in debt, and the government has a
lien on the farm, which is assessed for taxes at slightly more than

Despite all he has lost and could lose, Ellis is adamant that he broke
no moral law, even though he may have stepped across man's law.

The four people he was supplying with marijuana at the time of the raid
— three with cancer and a transplant patient — have died. "Three of them
died within a year. The fourth died the next year. Some of them tried to
get marijuana from other places, but they told me they had to pay for
it," he said.

Whether he keeps his farm or loses it, Ellis said he might grow
marijuana again, but not in Tennessee if the law does not protect the

"I would hate to leave my home of 40 years to find a state that approved
of what I was doing, but I would. From the compassionate perspective,
anything that can be done to ease the pain and suffering to terminal
cancer patients or HIV/AIDS patients, or MS patients, or people with
chronic pain problems, we should."

Posted by The Legalise Cannabis Alliance

Author: The Tennessean via UKCIA

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