The Rise and Fall of an Oakland Potrepreneur
Yan Ebyam's huge medical marijuana growing operation brought fame – and trouble
Ramin Rahimian for The Bay Citizen
Yan Ebyam once operated a marijuana grow in this warehouse in Oakland
The letters in his first name stand for “yes and no.” His last name, also the creation of hippie parents, is “maybe” spelled backward. It’s perhaps fitting, then, that Yan Ebyam came to be neck deep in the murky, quasi-legal world of Oakland’s marijuana-growing industry.
It is an industry that blossomed in the oversize metal warehouses of old-line Oakland businesses. Established trucking, plumbing and construction companies, scrambling for work in a down economy, opened their doors to Ebyam’s cannabis farms, thought to be the largest in the city. His workers, mostly the bud-trimmers who assure the highest-quality medical marijuana, were organized by the Teamsters.
But the failure of the statewide marijuana legalization initiative last fall, and subsequent threats from federal prosecutors, derailed the ambitious plan of city leaders to license four giant farms and thus make Oakland the legal cannabis capital of the country. And with the collapse of Oakland’s vision of marijuana supremacy came disaster for Ebyam.
Ebyam is now locked in litigation over the $1.25 million sale of one of his growing operations, and another installation has been decimated by a string of suspicious burglaries – a fitting symbol, perhaps, of an industry that could have been.
“The morality tale of Yan’s grows is perhaps the morality tale of the Oakland ordinance,” said James Anthony, a medical marijuana lawyer in Oakland. “The size, the money – it all attracted too much attention.”
Ebyam, 33, does not fit the profile of the smooth new-wave entrepreneur. He blurts out his thoughts in rapid fire and is highly intelligent but pays little attention to matters like clothing or social cues. During a recent interview at a coffee shop, Ebyam, a stocky man with short, curly black hair, didn’t want espresso or cappuccino. He ordered milk and cookies.
In terms of background, Ebyam seems to have been born for his profession. His parents grew marijuana to put food on the table while raising him in Willits in Mendocino County, he said. But Ebyam rebelled against his hippie upbringing, seeking his fortune instead in Silicon Valley.
“When we were little, my brother surfed and I played computer games,” Ebyam recalled.
In his early 20s, he went into the business of buying and selling computer equipment from bankrupt start-ups. His venture ended badly when he was arrested and pleaded guilty to money laundering in the sale of more than $6 million worth of stolen Sun Microsystems servers and Cisco routers. He was sentenced to two and a half years in federal prison, where, he said, he became an expert chess and Scrabble player.
Ebyam showed up in Oakland as the medical marijuana bubble was inflating three years ago. He started small but quickly broadened his ambitions, becoming partners with a Los Angles lawyer named Nathan Hoffman. The plan was to grow marijuana on a large scale and sell it to patients in Los Angeles. (Ebyam said his mother was “amused” that he had gone into the business.)
Searching for a warehouse, Ebyam met with Jeff Wilcox, a businessman who had been a leading advocate for the Oakland marijuana farm legislation. Wilcox said he was not impressed with the business plan but that Ebyam was memorable.
“He seemed really smart, but he was a little different socially,” Wilcox recalled. “He was going a mile a minute, and he talked a lot – about everything under the sun.”
Ebyam eventually struck a deal with the Nurisso family, which boasts four generations of Bay Area plumbers. The Nurissos run Broadway Mechanical-Contractors, an industrial plumbing and metal fabrication company, and have big warehouses around their headquarters in East Oakland.
Ken Nurisso said the family had decided to lease to a cannabis grower because “there’s never been a harder time for commercial real estate to be leased out.”
Ebyam’s setup was enormous: a total of 454 grow lights in 16 rooms, according to court documents. Industry experts say that 20 to 40 plants can be grown with one light, and an average marijuana-growing installation in Oakland uses about 10 lights.
There were problems from the start. The first crop was heavily damaged by bugs, Ebyam said. The second crop was on its way when, Ebyam alleged, Fred Nurisso threatened to shut off the electricity in an effort to take over the business. Nurisso disputed the account, saying that Ebyam and his partners had been behind on the rent and the utility bills, and that a new business arrangement had been needed.
In early 2010, a company run by the Nurissos agreed to buy the operation for $1.25 million, according to a lawsuit filed by Ebyam and Hoffman. They claimed they were never paid all the money.
In court filings, a Nurisso lawyer countered that the operation never produced the $1 million marijuana crop that had been promised. In fact, the lawyer wrote, “proceeds were significantly lower than $1 million and took three months to sell.”
In an interview last week, Ken Nurisso said they were no longer in the medical marijuana business.
Ebyam’s next growing venture made national news. He moved into another East Oakland warehouse, 40,000 square feet in a building owned by a trucking company. It was the first grow operation in the country to be unionized, by the Teamsters, who won pensions, health care and a $25-an-hour wage for 40 workers. Lou Marchetti, the boss of Teamsters Local 70, was interviewed live on ABC, and an amused news anchor chuckled about the “marijuana farmers union.”
Oakland city officials, in the midst of drafting their ill-fated cannabis farm ordinance, toured the facility. They were hoping to permit four farms like Ebyam’s and rake in millions in tax revenue for the city. With the help of the Teamsters’ political connections, Ebyam was hoping to win one of the permits.
But the publicity turned out to be a curse. A string of thefts and break-ins at the warehouse quickly followed. In court filings, Hoffman said the thieves had made off with $125,000 worth of marijuana.
Ebyam said he decided to move from his condo in San Francisco and into the warehouse in the fall of 2010 to help stand guard. He dragged a mattress into the office and brought a powerful foghorn that he used to scare off thieves who clambered onto the roof trying to get in.
But the break-ins took their toll. Ebyam fought with his business partners. At the same time, Ebyam’s personal assistant, Julie Du, sued him, claiming sexual harassment and nonpayment of the $120,000 salary she said she had been promised.
Ebyam dismissed the claims, saying, “I made the mistake of hiring an ex-girlfriend.”
Toward the end of 2010, Oakland city officials put the cannabis farm plans on ice after federal prosecutors threatened legal action. At Ebyam’s East Oakland operation, the work force has dwindled from 40 to 8.
As the city’s ordinance fell apart, Ebyam left Oakland. Although he is still a part owner of the grow operation, his whereabouts and what he is up to are a mystery to many.
Ebyam implied that he was still in the medical marijuana business but refused to say where. “After last time, I think it’s better that way.”
This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.
Source: The Bay Citizen