A high-profile federal trial began Wednesday for three family members and a close family friend who have been charged with illegally possessing and distributing medical marijuana, among other offenses. If convicted, the defendants face minimum mandatory sentences of 10 years in prison.
Rhonda Firestack-Harvey, 55, her son Rolland Gregg, 33, and Rolland's wife Michelle Gregg, 35, as well as the family's close friend Jason Zucker, 38, grew marijuana on the property of their home in a rural town in northeast Washington. Larry Harvey, Firestack-Harvey's husband and Rolland Gregg's father, was originally charged in the case as well. However, the federal government agreed last week to dismiss all charges against Harvey because he was recently diagnosed with late-stage cancer.
The defendants maintain that the pot patch was in compliance with state law and that the plants were for their own medical use. (Washington state legalized medical marijuana in 1998.) But in 2012, federal law enforcers raided the Harvey home and shut down their operation.
The federal government has long prohibited the cultivation, possession and sale of marijuana in any form. States such as Washington that have legalized marijuana or softened penalties for possession have only been able to do so because of federal guidance urging prosecutors to refrain from targeting state-legal marijuana operations.
Following the raid, the Department of Justice charged each defendant with multiple felonies, including manufacturing, possession and distribution of marijuana, as well as possessing a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking. (The family keeps several guns at the house, which it says are for hunting and defense. But federal prosecutors say the presence of firearms shows the defendants were involved in drug trafficking.)
At issue in the case is a historic measure, included in the federal spending bill signed by President Barack Obama in December 2014, that prohibits the Department of Justice from using funds to go after state-legal medical marijuana programs. In a motion to dismiss all charges filed in 2014, Harvey's attorney argued that this provision protects patients such as Harvey and his family from federal prosecution.
U.S. District Court Judge Thomas O. Rice, however, rejected the motion earlier this month.
State authorities raided the Harvey home in August 2012, according to court documents, and found 74 plants growing near the house. Officers seized 29 of the plants in order to bring the family into compliance with state law, which limits collective crops to no more than 45 plants.
A week later, however, federal authorities conducted a more comprehensive raid, seizing the family's remaining marijuana plants along with about five pounds of raw cannabis and some marijuana-infused edibles. Authorities also seized a sedan, several hundred dollars, firearms and some personal belongings.
"This is not the kind of spectacular haul that the DEA is typically called in for," the family's attorneys wrote in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder in February 2014, urging him to reconsider the charges. "Just the opposite, the evidence seized is consistent with the type of strict medical dosage that occurs with a doctor's supervision."
All of the defendants were state-licensed medical marijuana patients. Before the raid, according to attorneys, Larry Harvey ate marijuana-infused cookies to ease symptoms related to gout, chronic pain and inflammation. The lawyers noted that his wife, who has osteoarthritis and has undergone joint and bone surgeries, used medical cannabis to ease her inflammation and pain. Rolland Gregg and Zucker used medical marijuana to treat back injuries, attorneys say, while Michelle Gregg used cannabis for appetite stimulation due to wasting brought on by a medical condition she hasn't disclosed.
"The Obama administration has so far ignored a congressional order to stop prosecuting patients in medical marijuana states," said Kris Hermes, a spokesman Americans for Safe Access, referring to the provision in the spending bill. Hermes' group advocates for increased legal access to marijuana and more research into the drug.
"With no place to turn from a vengeful federal government," Hermes argued, the defendants "will be forced to rely on jurors to do the right thing and acquit."