A federal judge sentenced three Washington residents to prison terms in early October, bringing a possible end to a troubling story of government overreach and abuse of power.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Rice handed down the sentences Oct. 2 in a federal courthouse representing the Eastern District of Washington State. Rolland Gregg was sentenced to more than 2.5 years in prison, while his wife, Michelle Gregg, and his mother, Rhonda Firestack-Harvey, each received terms of one year in federal prison.
The outcome could have been worse. A jury acquitted the three family members earlier this year on much more serious felony cultivation charges. Conviction on those counts could have led to decades behind bars for each defendant.
The acquittal marked a landmark moment in the history of medical marijuana; it was only the second time an American jury had rendered a not guilty verdict against a defendant who admitted to growing cannabis for medicine.
The so-called “Kettle Falls Five” case centered on Larry Harvey, a Kettle Falls resident with several severe diseases, including terminal cancer. Harvey and his family grew about 70 marijuana plants at the home he owned with Firestack-Harvey.
Marijuana belonged to registered patients
The marijuana, all of it medical, was divided between five registered, legitimate MMJ patients: Harvey, his wife, their son, their daughter-in-law, and a family friend, Jason Zucker. Zucker received a 16-month federal sentence after pleading guilty last year.
The jury acquitted Harvey, who died shortly after the verdict, on all counts. He is widely viewed as a political hero and a martyr within the nation’s medical cannabis community. Federal prosecutors went after him and his family aggressively, their actions flying in the face of direct orders from President Barack Obama and Congress.
That means the sentences handed down this month may be legally baseless, but that won’t stop the government from enforcing them – all over a plot of land used to grow no more medical cannabis than the state’s law allows.
Prosecutors tried to prove the Harvey family was growing more than 100 plants, distributing marijuana, using a gun in connection with a drug offense, and maintaining a place for the purpose of making and distributing cannabis. The jury rejected each of these arguments: Prosecutors had no evidence of a larger grow, the guns were legitimate hunting rifles (not the weapon of choice for drug dealers), and the home belonged to Harvey and his family.
Harvey was acquitted on all counts
But even as they acquitted Harvey on all charges, the jury found the other family members guilty of the lesser federal crime of growing more than 50 but fewer than 100 cannabis plants. Medical and recreational marijuana are both legal in Washington, and have been since 2013, but the drug remains prohibited for any use by federal law.
Because the jury rejected the heavier counts, Rice had wide discretion in sentencing. Prosecutors asked for 41 to 51 months, while the defense recommended probation. The family members remain free pending their appeals.
U.S. Attorney Michael Ormsby drew intense criticism over his decision to try the Harvey family. Obama issued directives in 2013 that allow MMJ in state where it’s legal, while Congress recently enacted laws meant to stop exactly this type of prosecution.
But the Justice Department simply decided to ignore both orders, saying it wasn’t bound by them. The move was deeply confusing, likely a last-ditch grab for power by the DEA and its friendliest federal prosecutors. The legal trend is toward legalization, and fighting the tide rarely works out well.