Monday, April 23, 2007

Bernie Ellis

Bernie Ellis is a public health researcher and political activist who happens to own a 187 acre farm in the hills southwest of Nashville. I've seen his name around on a few political blog comment threads, and also for his efforts in organizing the National Conference on the 2004 Election that was held here a while back, the goal of which was to mobilize citizens to push for electoral reform.

Ellis also gained local notoriety in 2002 when his farm was raided and law enforcement officials seized approximately seven pounds of marijuana plants. Ellis plead guilty to growing pot - he's never tried to hide what he was doing from anyone - and was sentenced to four years probation, including an 18 month stay in a halfway house. Ellis is about to be released from the halfway house, but may not have his farm to go home to. The Tennessean reports that his farm may be seized under federal asset confiscation laws.

Robert Koehler describes the raid in a recent Chicago Tribune column (available at Huffington Post):

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.

Ellis never accepted payment for the marijuana he grew. He gave it away to people in need, as well as smoking some himself in order to relieve pain from fibromyalgia and a degenerative joint disease. From the Tennessean article:

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 girl."

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."

The Belcourt Theatre in Nashville is hosting a "Save Bernie's Farm" benefit Wednesday in order to help Ellis raise money for his fight. All can check out the Save Bernie's Farm website, which tells Ellis' story in further detail and also contains lots of pictures and video of some of the most gorgeous scenery you'll see anywhere.

(Crossposted at Watching Those We Chose.)