Belly of the Beast 

‘Marijuana martyr’ in lockdown

Bernie Ellis, Nashville’s cause célèbre of the medical marijuana movement, has been placed in virtual lockdown at a halfway house in an apparent attempt to quell publicity surrounding his plight.

Bernie Ellis, Nashville’s cause célèbre of the medical marijuana movement, has been placed in virtual lockdown at a halfway house in an apparent attempt to quell publicity surrounding his plight.

The halfway house cracked down on Ellis after last week’s Scene featured “Marijuana Martyr,” the story of how the 57-year-old public-health epidemiologist was busted for growing pot for the sick and dying and might lose his 187-acre farm to the federal government as a result.

Ellis is reluctant to discuss the situation because he does not want to antagonize the officials who control his future. But he says he was told that he could no longer leave the halfway house to go to work or for any other reason—except to attend church on Sundays—because of unspecified rule violations.

Ellis is supposed to be released from the Diersen Charities-run halfway house on May 10 after 18 months, but he could be kicked out before then. If that happens, he would be in violation of the terms of his four-year probation and could be sent to prison.

The halfway house director, Keith Shelton, did not return phone calls from the Scene.

“I’m not sure what precipitated this, but I’m willing to do whatever’s required of me until I’m released,” Ellis says. “It’s a very delicate moment for me.”

Ellis was denied permission to attend last week’s “Save Bernie’s Farm” protest concert at the Belcourt Theatre, a raucous sellout that raised $11,000 for his cause. But he did manage to make his presence felt. He called from the pay phone at the halfway house and spoke over a speakerphone onstage at the Belcourt.

“I could hear them all hooting and hollering,” Ellis says. “I thanked everyone who came out because, by their presence, they were saying we need to change our laws around medical marijuana.”

The crowd cheered wildly when Ellis declared, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

Ellis gave away the marijuana he grew to terminally ill people with cancer, AIDS and other sicknesses. He is fighting to stop the federal government from confiscating his Middle Tennessee farm as a drug-case forfeiture.

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