The federal government has dropped all charges against a Washington medical marijuana patient who was recently diagnosed with late-stage cancer, in a high-profile case that involves the patient and his family growing medical cannabis at their home.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas O. Rice dismissed multiple federal marijuana charges against 71-year-old Larry Harvey because of his deteriorating health brought on by stage 4 cancer of the pancreas, which has begun to spread to his liver.
But Harvey's reprieve remains bittersweet. His family members, who were charged along with him, still collectively face the possibility of decades in prison.
"I'm thankful the charges against me have been dropped so that I can focus on my battle with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer," Harvey said in a statement. "However, if the Department of Justice truly has concerns for my well being, it will dismiss the case against my entire family. I thought the law passed by Congress and signed by President Obama was supposed to stop the DOJ from prosecuting my family, but so far, there's been little relief."
Had Harvey been convicted, he faced at least 10 years behind bars, but he may not have lived long enough to see prison, let alone serve out his sentence. The average life expectancy for a patient with metastatic pancreatic cancer is three to six months. He recently told The Huffington Post that going to prison would be a "death sentence" for him.
Harvey has a difficult battle with cancer ahead, but worries how he will fare if his family is sentenced in the case.
"My wife, Rhonda, is my sole caregiver," Harvey said Thursday. "She cooks meals for me and makes sure I take all my medicines on time. She's even been using our tractor to do all of the property upkeep herself, since I am too sick to do it anymore. If Rhonda goes to prison, I don't know who will take care of me. I will probably have to leave our home for good and move into a nursing facility."
Harvey -- along with his wife; their son and daughter-in-law, Rolland and Michelle Gregg; and family friend Jason Zucker -- grew marijuana on the property of their rural Washington home, for what they say was their own medical use. The family has maintained that its pot patch was in compliance with state law. (Washington state legalized medical marijuana in 1998.) But in 2012, state and federal law enforcers raided the Harvey home and shut down their operation.
The federal government has long prohibited the use and sale of marijuana, maintaining that it's one of the "most dangerous" substances available and that it has "no currently accepted medical use."
But the sprawling federal spending bill signed by President Barack Obama in December contained a historic measure 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.
Rice disagreed and rejected the motion last week in Spokane. The Harvey family's trial is slated to begin next week.
The federal government has charged each of the defendants with multiple felonies, including manufacturing, possession and distribution of marijuana, as well as possessing a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking.
The family has said the firearms charge is included because they keep several guns at the house for hunting and defense. But federal prosecutors say the presence of firearms shows the defendants were involved in drug trafficking.
State authorities raided the Harvey home in August 2012, according to court documents. State law enforcement found 74 plants growing near the house. Under the presumption that the family was growing this cannabis as a collective, rather than individually, officers seized 29 cannabis plants so that the family would be compliant with state law, which limits collective crops to no more than 45 plants. State authorities did not press charges or seize anything else.
A week later, federal authorities conducted a more comprehensive raid, seizing the Harveys' remaining marijuana plants along with about 5 pounds of raw cannabis and some marijuana-infused edibles. The feds also seized a 2007 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, 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, Harvey ate marijuana-infused cookies to ease symptoms related to gout, chronic pain and inflammation, according to his attorneys. His wife, who has osteoarthritis and has undergone joint and bone surgeries, used medical cannabis to ease her inflammation and pain, the lawyers said. Rolland Gregg and Zucker used medical marijuana to treat back injuries, while Michelle Gregg used cannabis for appetite stimulation due to wasting brought on by a medical condition she hasn't disclosed, attorneys say.
"Federal prosecutors in this case are hell-bent on pursuing these defendants to the ends of the Earth," said Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, whose group advocates for increased legal access to marijuana and more research into the drug. "Congress and the president have spoken clearly on this issue, but the DOJ apparently isn't willing to listen."