Updated: Dec 28, 2020
Eddy Lepp is a medical marijuana pioneer and P.O.W. whose courage and compassion have cemented his place in cannabis history.
On the morning of December 6, 2016 (just one month after California passed Proposition 64 legalizing cannabis for adult use), a tired-looking 64-year-old Vietnam veteran in a Rasta-colored beanie emerged from a white van and into the waiting arms of beloved friends outside Colorado’s Florence Correctional Institution where he’d spent the past eight-plus years imprisoned for doing the very same thing that businessmen across the state were about to make millions doing: growing a shit-ton of marijuana. Unlike so many of today’s corporate capitalists, however, he wasn’t motivated by personal gain; rather, he did it at great personal cost in order to help those in need. This is the tale of OG Eddy Lepp.
EDDY'S EARLY DAYS
Born in La Harpe, Illinois in 1952, Charles “Eddy” Lepp was the son of a military man who spent much of his childhood moving around before eventually settling in Reno. In 1968, at the age of 19, he enlisted in the army alongside his brother and was shipped off to Vietnam. It was during basic training that he first started smoking marijuana—a habit he continued during his year in the war. After returning home, he spent the next two decades struggling with addiction, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder—self-medicating with every intoxicant he could get his hands on and engaging in a pattern of self-destructive behavior. But when his father got sick with cancer in the mid-1980s, he decided to clean up his act and began his struggle toward sobriety; the only intoxicant he didn’t give up was marijuana, which he continued to use medicinally, though he didn’t realize it at the time.
“I used marijuana for years to keep from killing myself,” confesses Lepp. “I was using cannabis to treat myself, but in the beginning, I didn’t realize that I was medicating because we didn't have the information.”
As it turned out, that information would come soon enough: through his daughter Chrissy, Lepp ended up meeting Dennis Peron and his life changed forever.
“Back in the '80s I met Dennis and Jack, was very interested in what they were talking about, and got to be friends with them,” he recalls. “After that, I was kinda fucked, because you can’t very well be best friends with Dennis Peron and Jack Herer and not be a crazy cocksucker who’s devoted their life to marijuana.”
Lepp gave cannabis to his ailing father to stimulate his appetite during his cancer treatments—holding joints for his dad to smoke through his tracheotomy tube. After his father’s death in 1988, Lepp checked himself into the National Center for PTSD in Palo Alto, California. It was there, at a veteran’s luncheon, that he met his future wife—a young woman doling out ice cream named Linda Senti. With the help of the Center, his new love Linda, and cannabis, he was finally able to get sober and begin to heal.
“Cannabis was critically important in shaping my recovery and the man that I was going to become,” Lepp attests. “As time passed, I was able to see not only how it healed me physically, but how it allowed me to heal myself mentally and get back in touch with the creator and renew my association with God as I understood him. It allowed me to accept realities and see the truth in who I was and what I’d done, to deal with them in such a way that I grew from it rather than hating and condemning myself.”
CALLED TO ACTION
Eddy and Linda fell madly in love, were soon married, and after a series of unsuccessful get-rich-quick schemes eventually settled in Lake County, California. The couple got heavily involved in the cannabis legalization movement and quickly formed friendships with all of the major players of the time: Peron, Brownie Mary, Dr. Tod Mikuriya, and his hero and mentor Jack Herer, with who Lepp grew very close—eventually embarking on a worldwide speaking tour with him.
The Lepps also worked closely alongside Peron and his team to help pass the Compassionate Use Act, gathering the necessary signatures to get the initiative onto the ballot. After the landmark legislation passed (making California the first state to legalize marijuana for medical use) the couple set out to begin fulfilling Prop 215’s promise by supplying medicine to patients in need…starting with Linda herself. Sadly, like Eddy’s father, Linda also had cancer and he was determined to help her with cannabis as well.
“When my dad got sick, we kept him alive with marijuana for quite a while,” says Lepp. “Then Linda got sick, and we kept her alive for over ten years.”
In 1996, with Peron’s help, he planted a garden of 132 plants for her—which he was eventually arrested for later that year. When his case got to trial in 1998, Lepp cited Prop 215 for his medical marijuana defense and it worked; he became the first person ever acquitted of cannabis charges under the aegis of the very law that he’d helped to pass.
In Prop 215’s early days, very few doctors were willing to step up and begin writing recommendations for cannabis. So during the time between his arrest and trial, Lepp and his wife began shuttling up to a dozen patients a week down to Dr. Mikuriya’s office in San Francisco so they could get recommendations. As the need grew, the Lepps expanded their efforts: in 1999, they purchased a 25-acre farm in the town of Upper Lake (on the edge of the Emerald Triangle) and began hosting remote, mobile clinics—bringing doctors and groups of patients together for consultations right on their property.
Their efforts proved wildly successful: within a year or so, the Lepps had become responsible for a third of the approximately 100,000 registered medical marijuana patients in the state. But unfortunately, getting people recommendations wasn’t always enough; as they quickly learned, many of the nearly 35,000 patients they helped register were—for whatever reason—unable to procure, afford or grow their own medicine. So once again, the Lepps chose to step up.
It started off small, with one of their neighbors: she’d gotten in trouble with her landlord for trying to grow weed in her trailer court, so they offered to grow a few plants for her. Over the next few years, Lepp was soon growing for six patients, then a dozen, then 30. That’s how Eddy’s Medicinal Gardens came into being.
THE HEALING FIELDS
It was a simple yet bold idea: create a safe haven where local patients could all grow their medicine in one secure, well-tended place—reducing costs and avoiding countless possible thefts, busts, and other unexpected calamities. Lepp charged each patient $500 per 10-foot plot, from which they’d receive all of the cannabis harvested from up to six plants. At 3-4 ounces per plant, that was around a pound of herb per plot. And for those who couldn’t afford a plot, Lepp often provided their medicine free of charge.
In conjunction with the medical garden, Lepp also founded a religious ministry: The Multi-Denominational Ministry of Cannabis and Rastafari. From early on, he connected strongly with the Native American church; years later, he also found himself drawn to the Rastafari religion, partly due to their view of cannabis as a sacrament. Lepp feels there are fundamental parallels between the two, which he identifies as “living a life of purity and truth, with respect for the mother earth.” In 2000 he became an ordained minister, adopted the title of Reverend, and began holding ceremonies on the farm. Not everyone in the Ministry had a plot, and not everyone with a plot was in the Ministry…nevertheless, the two were intimately related.
As word spread about Eddy’s Medicinal Gardens, more and more patients approached Lepp asking for help. His gardens and ministry continued to grow. Unfortunately, though, patients weren’t the only people who took notice of what Lepp was doing; up until that point, the farm had pretty much operated with impunity. Lepp had developed an understanding with the Lake County Sheriffs Department, allowing them access to inspect the property periodically to avoid any legal action. But that unofficial accord ended one afternoon in 2002: while the Lepps were down in the Bay Area meeting with the SF Patient’s Resource Center, the Lake County Narcotics Task Force, in cooperation with the DEA, raided the farm—confiscating around 400 plants and arresting four people. Surprisingly, they ended up being released the next day and no charges were ever pursued.
Undeterred from their mission, the Lepps continued to expand their ministry and their gardens. By 2003, the Ministry was servicing around 100 patients and growing nearly 10,000 plants. Lepp made no attempt to hide what he was doing—in fact, he actually penned a letter laying out his intentions and sent it to a number of local and state officials before each planting, saying that if they had any objections to let him know. No reply ever came.
Emboldened by the lack of legal repercussions thus far, they doubled down on their efforts: they purchased a property just across the road—expanding their initial 25-acre property up to 40 acres. After that, their growth was fast and furious: within months they had 4000 paid plots and were growing upwards of 30,000 plants, some of which were over 10 feet tall.
Up until that time, the only outdoor grows were relatively small guerilla operations— camouflaged or hidden deep in the woods. Eddy’s Gardens, on the other hand, were out in the open—they could be seen (and smelled) while cruising down Highway 20, which now ran straight through the middle of his farm.
That summer, they invited High Times magazine out to the property to document their efforts. Nicknamed “The Healing Fields” by reporter Kyle Kushman, Eddy’s Medicinal Gardens were now recognized by High Times as the largest medical marijuana grow in the world—and Eddy himself as their Freedom Fighter of the Year. Lepp’s brazen transparency and courage were born from their compassion and sense of righteousness in what they were doing and served as an inspiration for all who learned about them.
CONVICTED FOR HIS CONVICTIONS
Unfortunately, though, it wasn’t long before all of that attention brought with it the scrutiny of the law. On August 18, 2004, the DEA swarmed their property, arresting Lepp and 14 residents and workers at gunpoint. It reportedly took authorities two full days to chainsaw down the crop of 32,524 plants, which they valued at around $80 million (300-400 lbs of which they apparently spilled along the highway on their way to the dump). It was the largest medical crop seizure from an individual in US history. A few days after Lepp was released on $200,000 bail, he traveled up to Seattle to speak at Hempfest. And despite his legal issues, began replanting as soon as he got home.
“Linda said to me once, ‘I just wish sometimes it wasn’t so overwhelming,’” Lepp remembers. “And I replied, “Well, I’ll do whatever you want…you pick the first person we say no to.” She turned to me and started crying and said, ‘Honey, we can’t say no to any of them.’ And we never did.”
The DEA raided the farm again on February 16, 2005—seizing another 6000 plants and re-arresting Lepp—charging him with cultivation and possession with intent to sell/distribute. This time, he wasn’t released until two months later, on a $500,000 bond—thanks to the help of his legal dream team of Tony Serra, Omar Figueroa, and Shari Greenberger, as well as a $10,000 donation from comedian and cannabis advocate Joe Rogan. Initially, his lawyers planned a medical defense based partly on the sovereignty of states rights versus federal jurisdiction…but that strategy had to be abandoned after the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Raich vs. Gonzales on June 6, which established the federal government’s right to enforce the Controlled Substances Act regardless of state law. So instead, they tried to pursue a religious use defense, but US District Court Judge Marilyn Hall Patel refused to allow it. His trial last three days, with a guilty verdict returned after just four hours.
After his conviction in 2007, there were several appeals, during which time the judge incredibly granted him permission to travel to Amsterdam in November for the Cannabis Cup. Eventually, though, his appeals ran out, and in May 2008 it was time for him to face sentencing. With the total of all charges against him from the combined raids, Lepp was facing an unbelievable four life sentences, plus 40 years and $17 million in fines. Luckily, the judge showed him some mercy and sentenced him to only the mandatory minimum of ten years, which he began serving months later. Lepp served eight and a half of those years before being released on parole in December 2016. While he was behind bars, both his beloved Linda and best friend Jack Herer passed away...but was also honored with both a strain (OG Eddy Lepp) and a song ("Free Eddy Lepp", Los Marijuanos).
RELEASE AND REVERENCE
Since his release, Lepp has mostly tried to lay low and stay out of trouble; he's spent much of his time painting cannabis-themed art, hosting his podcast "The OG Eddy Lepp Show," visiting with friends and family (including his new wife Sandra), and attending the occasional cannabis event in California.
Sadly, in October 2020, he announced that like his late father and wife Linda, he too is now battling an aggressive form of cancer that has metastasized into his lungs, groin, and brain. He currently takes up to four grams of RSO a day for the pain. Lepp’s wife Sandra has created a gofundme.com page to try to raise money to help with his medical costs. Despite the tragedies and tribulations he’s suffered, Lepp says he wouldn’t change a thing.
“I don't regret a fucking thing I’ve ever done,” Eddy proclaims, then after a pause adds, “except when I’ve lost my temper.”
Eddy Lepp is a modern-day marijuana martyr whose bravery, conviction and sacrifices helped pave the way for the freedoms we enjoy today. Regardless of whether he chooses to use the title or not, our reverence toward the Reverend remains.
If you can, please consider donating to Eddy's fund at gofundme.com/eddyleppneedsyou. To hear our full interview with Eddy, listen to Episode 9 of our Cannthropology potcast here or wherever you get your podcasts.