The road to cannabis legalization and normalization is paved with prisoners of the drug war. Here are two of their stories.
William “Will” Foster, 61, Tulsa
Foster is an unlikely candidate for someone with multiple felonies.
A computer programmer and systems analyst, he spent four years in the Army working at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico after being recruited while in college.
“That was 1978, so computer schools were really just getting started. You only had, at that stage, COBOL and assembly language. … I worked in a nuclear effects laboratory, and I wrote programs for a linear accelerator,” Foster said.
Foster grew his hair long and wore a beard and never wore a uniform but for obvious reasons left the military when they started doing urinalysis. He worked for a number of technology companies before founding his own company, which he ran until the time of his arrest.
Foster became involved with cannabis in his teens.
“It was in high school, probably my junior year, maybe my sophomore year. I just kind of dabbled with it at that stage,” he said. “But by the time I was a senior in high school, I knew I wanted to grow cannabis. I even put that in my annual that that’s what I would be doing. In the class prophecy of what I’d be doing in 20 years, I told them right then that I’d be growing pot.”
In fact, he had already started, putting in hours cultivating Hanna Homegrown, a McIntosh County growing operation that has become legendary for its black-market cannabis in the subculture.
“I dabbled here and there with outdoor crops in the late ’80s and early ’90s, guerilla growing, but I got tired of growing outdoor pot for the for the deer hunters because they’d come in October for bow season and I’d lose half, two-thirds of my crop that I had out there and had worked all year,” Foster said. “I called it guerilla growing because I was on other people’s property.”
He bought a house in Tulsa with a five-by-five-foot bomb shelter and started growing in it. Foster said there were only between 20 and 30 plants in it and he only grew for personal use, as he was already making six figures from his computer business. But his life took a drastic turn Dec. 28, 1995, when his home was raided by the police. They demanded he turn over the names of three larger cultivators in exchange for a dropped case, but he did not know anyone growing more than he was.
“They tried to cripple me,” Foster said. “They seize my bank accounts and said it was all for illegal means and everything, and I had to go to court. … I had 200 people that I was just doing support contracts for that I was charging $900 a year. I just presented all my contracts.”
He had his money returned but had another run-in with the police while out on bail, which resulted in bogus charges that were later dismissed.
Furious, Foster refused to plea.
“I said, ‘We’re going to fucking jury trial. Let there be no doubt about it,’” he said. “When I hired my lawyer, I said, ‘If you’re not ready to go to trial, you’re not my lawyer.’ The way I look at it is that these people run rampant over people’s rights as it is and somebody’s got to fucking challenge these fucks.”
At trial, Foster called his doctor to testify on his behalf about his rheumatoid arthritis. He was told but cannot confirm that it was the first medical cannabis defense put forth in the state. Also testifying was famous cannabis activist and educator Ed Rosenthal. Nonetheless, Foster was convicted and sentenced to 93 years in prison, of which he served four and a half before being paroled by Gov. Frank Keating on the condition that he leave the state.
“They were getting phone calls. Every time they picked up, it was about me,” Foster said. “I had a lot of people out there aaaaaaaaaaaa aaaaa a a aaaaaaaaorganizing. I had some of the best activists on my side in the world.”
So he moved to California, living with Ed Rosenthal and starting cannabis cultivation in the San Francisco area. He eventually won two High Times Cannabis Cups before moving back to Tulsa in March of this year to found Herblix.
In honor of one of the activists who had his back all those years, Herblix named one of its strains Norma’s Dream after Norma Sapp. Once a victim of the drug war, Foster is now one of the preeminent legal cannabis cultivators in the state.
“I call it a drug war, but it didn’t start out as a drug war. It started out as a race war. … When it bled over and a prominent white person or well-off people started getting in trouble, then it got attention,” Foster said. “As long as we were locking up blacks and Hispanics, it was perfectly all right. … When you have a race of people that only make up 11 to 13 percent of your population, yet they occupy 70 percent of your prison population, if you can’t see that’s a fucking race war, you’re blind and you don’t want to see it.”
Charles “Eddy” Lepp, 67, California
Lepp was born in Illinois but spent most of his youth in Nevada before fighting in the Vietnam War and moving to California after returning from combat.
He has worn a lot of hats in his day: barber, bartender, party host, demolition worker and a woodsman who ran firewood and Christmas tree lots. The commonality among all of Lepp’s life paths was cannabis.
“Like any child of the ’60s, it pretty much has always been there. I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t. When I went into the military was when I actually started smoking it on a more regular basis and became familiar with it, but I can remember at 7 or 8 years old knowing about it and it being part of the discussion. It’s been a part of my life since I was a very small child,” Lepp said. “When I was 14, my dad and I and my grandfather and one of my dad’s buddies, we put in a crop. … I grew off and on my whole life.”
When legendary cannabis figures Jack Herer and Dennis Peron came into his life, things got serious fast.
“I had met Dennis and Jack before that. Some situations came about where I ended up becoming very dear friends with both of them,” Lepp said. “My daughter started being a caregiver for one of the first young men to have full-blown AIDS and my wife, Linda, got cancer again.”
While cannabis has always been a passion, Linda was the one true love of Lepp’s life.
“I was in the National Center for PTSD, and she was working for the VFW, and they had an event and we ended up talking and we ended up playing boyfriend/girlfriend on the phone for about three months,” Lepp said. “By the time we actually went out on a date, we literally had hundreds of hours of speaking with each other. … We knew each other intimately. It was weird because you get in a car and you’re sitting over there looking at somebody you don’t know, but you know every intimate, deepest, darkest secret they’ve ever had, and they you.”
Linda was diagnosed with cancer in her early 20s and then again when they first got together, then a third bout.
“We fell in love. We started raising the kid,” Lepp said. “I got off the booze and drugs and started searching for who I was, and Linda got the cancer again and Dennis and Jack were trying to pass [California Proposition] 215, and the time was right to get involved and to try to make a difference. I somehow went from being one of the guys that was trying to help Dennis to being the point of the sword.”
California Proposition 215 was the state’s medical law. Lepp said he was the first person to be arrested, tried and acquitted under it after passage.
Lepp put the cultivation in high gear and became a target for law enforcement, being raided several times.
“Then they came in ’04, and they took 32,524 plants,” Lepp said. “Then when they came in ’05, they took 11,000 plants, but they also took a two-pound Ziploc bag full of seeds that probably had in excess of 100,000, 200,000 seeds.”
The cannabis Lepp was producing was sent to dispensaries and cost patients $1 per gram.
Linda eventually succumbed to cancer in 2007, and Lepp was imprisoned in 2009 for a 10-year mandatory sentence in federal prison. He served eight and a half years and was released in 2016. While on probation, Lepp has been involved in CBD and hemp but has had to stay away from cannabis containing THC. He has about two and a half years left.
While he is a familiar name to cannabis activists, Lepp said he is frustrated by a movement that seems to have mostly forgotten him and his life’s work while he was imprisoned.
“It really pisses me off that people don’t know who the fuck I am, and again, it’s not my ego, although it may sound that way. But it’s real simple,” Lepp said. “When I did everything I did, dude, there were no rule books. It was literally the Wild, Wild West. It was literally the Ed Lepp show. For as wonderful as my life is and as successful as my life has been, it’s based on one failure after another. I got arrested. I got this. I got that. It’s been a constant battle, but it’s been a very fulfilling battle.”