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The Rise and Fall of an Oakland Potrepreneur

Yan Ebyam's huge medical marijuana growing operation brought fame — and trouble

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.”

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