Oakland medical marijuana grower Yan Ebyam struck a plea deal with the U.S. Attorney’s office on Tuesday for which he is likely to do time, but despite some distinctively counter-culture trappings he will have a tough time becoming the poster boy for federal overreach on this contentious issue.
The 37-year-old entrepreneur grew up in Willits in Mendocino County and was given his fanciful name by his hippie parents, according to a profile of him in The Bay Citizen. His first name is an acronym for Yes And No, while his last name is Maybe spelled backwards. He left the backwoods for Silicon Valley in his 20s and got involved buying and selling computer equipment once owned by bankrupt startups.
That did not go well. Ebyam was convicted of money laundering related to the sale of $6 million worth of Sun Microsystems and Cisco equipment, earning him a two-and-a-half-year sentence in federal prison.
He began growing pot in Oakland around 2008, starting small but eventually teaming up with Los Angeles lawyer Nathan Hoffman. They struck a deal with the Nurisso family, who are plumbing contractors, to use warehouses they have located around the city. The family agreed to buy the operation for $1.25 million in 2010, but the deal fell apart and Ebyam and Hoffman sued the Nurissos.
Ebyam started a new operation in another warehouse, this one owned by a trucking company, and got some national attention when the Teamsters won union recognition for the 40 workers. City officials, trying to win backing for an ordinance to facilitate growing pot in the area, toured his facility. Support for legalization of medical and recreational marijuana was quickly growing nationwide and many entrepreneurs were not hiding in the shadows.
The Obama administration and the U.S. Attorney General’s office were advocating a hands-off policy in California, while acknowledging that the state’s legalization of medical marijuana and dispensaries were in conflict with federal laws that made possession, sale and cultivation felonies. That changed dramatically at the end of 2011 when the U.S. Attorneys began aggressively busting growers, dispensaries and landlords who rent space to them.
The feds said they wanted much tighter regulation by local and state government, a commitment to non-profit enterprises and small business models that don’t lend themselves to control by criminal elements.
The Bay Citizen profile left its subject in May 2011, just months before the federal crackdown began, stumbling along with a business torn by conflict with his partners, ineptitude, break-ins and a lawsuit by his personal assistant, who said she was owed $120,000 in back pay. Ebyam said he regretted having hired his girlfriend. His employee count had dropped from 40 to 8.
But by the end of the year, he was growing in at least two large warehouses: 2,168 plants at “Black Horizon” in Sutter County and 3,105 plants at “Blue Horizon” in Sacramento County. Ebyam had partnered with the Jepson family, known for four generations of hydroponic tomato farming. That’s when the feds busted him again.
Ebyam faced 10 years to life in prison and a $10 million fine if convicted on charges of money laundering and conspiracy to manufacture and distribute marijuana. If the judge accepts the plea bargain, Ebyam is expected to get between six and eight years in prison. Sentencing is set for October 28.