Trial began on Wednesday with jury selection and opening statements in a widely watched federal medical marijuana case against a family from eastern Washington State known as the Kettle Falls Five. Last week, amidst mounting pressure, the Department of Justice (DOJ) dismissed charges against defendant Larry Harvey, 71, who was recently diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer.
Earlier this week, defendant and Harvey family friend Jason Zucker accepted a plea deal, whereby he agreed to cooperate with the prosecution by testifying against his co-defendants in exchange for a single felony conviction and a recommended sentence of 16 months.
Three defendants are now being tried, including Larry Harvey’s wife Rhonda Firestack-Harvey, 56, her son Rolland Gregg, 33, and daughter-in-law Michelle Gregg, 36. Because marijuana is illegal under federal law, the government will prevent any evidence related to medical necessity or compliance with state law from being used by the defense.
The Harveys are retired and have a home in rural Washington State near the town of Kettle Falls. In August 2012, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) raided the property and seized 44 premature marijuana plants, charging the five with conspiracy to manufacture and distribute marijuana, manufacture and distribution of marijuana, maintaining a drug-involved premises, and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime.
The government called its first witness on Wednesday, Sgt. Brad Menke of the Stevens County Sheriff’s Department, who with the help of the DEA conducted the initial search of the Harvey property on August 9, 2012. Menke originally identified the garden from the air, citing his training at a “DEA-sponsored aerial marijuana-spotter school.” At the time, however, law enforcement cut down only two-dozen plants — leaving 44 still in the ground — bringing the family into clear-cut compliance with their understanding of state law.
On a second visit, approximately one week later, the DEA cut down all of the plants and then federally indicted the Kettle Falls Five defendants. In a cynical prosecutorial move, the Department of Justice (DOJ) is claiming that the Kettle Falls Five grew marijuana in previous years in order to charge them with cultivating more than 100 plants, triggering a 5-year mandatory minimum sentence. The government is also pursuing gun charges that carry an additional 5-year mandatory minimum despite the fact that the guns found on the Harveys’ property were used for hunting and protection from wild animals. As a result, each defendant faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison.
Advocates say that the Obama Administration is pursuing this case unnecessarily and in defiance of a recent Congressional measure banning the DOJ from interfering in the implementation of state medical marijuana laws. Earlier this month, defendants filed motions to dismiss based on this Congressional measure, which was denied by U.S. District Court Judge Thomas O. Rice. The defendants have vowed to appeal after trial if convicted.
Trial will resume today in Room 902 of the Thomas S. Foley U.S. Courthouse, 920 West Riverside Avenue, Spokane, and will likely continue into early next week.