Devil Weed

Thursday, April 5th, 2007

“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

So of course a guy like Bernie Ellis — who signs his letters with this catchphrase, and who lives it in so many ways, doing what needs to be done, putting himself in the vanguard of vital social movements like the one for fair elections (which is how I know him) — would eventually get nailed for crossing a line.

How easy to have played it safe, but Ellis, who until a year and a half ago lived on a 187-acre farm 40 miles southwest of Nashville, Tenn., and worked as a public health epidemiologist, had been growing, along with other crops, a small amount of medical marijuana on his farm. The recipients over the years, via their social workers, were terminally ill AIDS and cancer patients, who obtained nausea and pain relief from what has been called (by no less than Francis Young, a Drug Enforcement Administration law judge) “one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man.”

For reasons that will probably forever remain murky, Ellis’ farm was raided in August 2002. A few days earlier, a local dealer had tried to buy some pot from him and was told to shove off, so the suspicion lingers that the dealer turned him in. Two helicopters swooped overhead and eight or nine officers of the Tennessee Marijuana Eradication Task Force entered his property — a lot of hoo-hah, you might think, for seven pounds of weed, worth about $7,000.

Ellis was interrogated for two hours and freely “confessed” to his activities. Indeed, at the very moment of the raid he’d been crafting recommendations, at the request of New Mexico’s then-Gov. Gary Johnson, on how that state could establish a program making cannabis available immediately to patients in need. He gave the officers a printout of his proposal. How guilty can you get?

“I said this from the beginning,” Ellis told me. “I’m not ashamed of what I’m doing.”

And he wasn’t arrested. The Task Force officers did some checking around and learned that Ellis was not only well known but highly respected among county officials. His troubles didn’t begin till the federal government became interested in his case — and this gets at the core outrage of the whole matter. The zeal to keep marijuana criminalized in the face of so much evidence — it has 50 to 100 therapeutically beneficial subcomponents and has been studied in connection with the treatment and control of Alzheimer’s, brain tumors, epilepsy, MS and even schizophrenia, among much else — emanates from the federal level.

Welcome to the Bush administration’s other bogus war: the war on drugs. Science be damned. Rationality, compassion and state’s rights be damned. What matters is the continual drawing of random and arbitrary borders, which are then ruthlessly defended no matter what. And with the drawing of borders comes the creation of enemies, and in the world of herbs, marijuana is the enemy — the devil weed, no matter how medically useful.

As Ellis noted, “Every federal commission since Nixon has recommended reclassifying marijuana, allowing it to re-enter the medical pharmacopoeia.” Yet the feds have been known to prosecute medical marijuana growers even in states that have legalized it. Twelve have done so, including, most recently, New Mexico, whose law, signed last month by Gov. Bill Richardson, incorporates the recommendations Ellis was working on at the time of the raid.

No matter. In federal court, Ellis was prosecuted as an ordinary drug dealer and convicted. Though his sentence was relatively lenient — an 18-month term in a federal halfway house, which ends in May — he has incurred some $70,000 in legal debt and, far more frightening, faces the loss of his farm in a federal civil action.

The Nashville community has rallied to his support, and a series of benefits are planned. If you’re interested in contributing to the cause, see

“If you really do believe what you’re doing is not wrong, then you’ve threatened the foundation of their legitimacy,” Ellis said. “You’ve raised your head above the foxhole.”

For my friend Bernie’s sake, I truly hope the forces of rationality are successful. And I recoil at the idea that his beautiful farm, where he has lived for four decades, could be fed into the maw of “example,” a reminder to like-minded others that an ignorant and arrogant administration is in power right now and will impose the Dark Ages on all of us for as long as it can.