Deliberations begin in Wash. medical marijuana trial

Trevor Hughes, USA Today

Jurors Tuesday began deciding a case that marijuana-legalization advocates hope is one of the last of its kind: A federal prosecution of medical marijuana users.

The 12-member federal jury is deciding the fate of three members of a group known as the "Kettle Falls Five," who in 2012 were caught growing marijuana on property belonging to Larry Harvey and his wife. A grand jury indicted Harvey and his wife, their son, daughter-in-law and a family friend, charging them with illegally growing and distributing marijuana in the forest outside their northeastern Washington home.

The group claimed they were growing the marijuana for their personal medical use — Harvey has advanced pancreatic cancer — and invoked protections under Washington state's medical marijuana laws. All had doctors' recommendations for medical marijuana use.

But federal prosecutors have continued pressing the case, arguing that federal law makes no exemption for medical use, and that the amounts the group had far exceeded personal use. Police seized more than 8 pounds of marijuana from the home. Because it's a federal prosecution, Judge Thomas Rice has barred the defendants from even mentioning "medical marijuana" as a defense.

Prosecutors before trial dropped the charges against Harvey on account of his illness, and secured a plea deal with the family friend who then testified he fronted most of the money and did most of the growing. Harvey on Tuesday morning was wheeled into the courtroom in his wheelchair a few minutes before jurors began deliberating.

"We're gonna win it."

Larry Harvey, on case against wife, son and daughter-in-law

"To some extent this is theater. The marijuana community has almost universally said these are poor, victimized, sick people and that the government is persecuting them. And it's possibly right. But the government says they're drug dealers," said Frank Snyder, a Texas A&M School of Law professor and marijuana-law expert who has been following the case. "It's a show trial in both of those senses."

The case against Harvey's family has become a rallying cry for legalization advocates, who say voters across the country have approved medical marijuana laws to protect people in this situation. The fact that federal prosecutors forged ahead even after Congress ordered the Justice Department to leave alone states with medical marijuana systems just adds fuel to the fire for legalization advocates.

The wheelchair-bound Harvey testified on Capitol Hill shortly before Congress passed the restriction on the Department of Justice, demonstrating that federal prosecutors were indeed bringing cases against individual sick people using marijuana and not just going after big drug dealers, said Kari Boiter of Americans for Safe Access.

"There's no doubt he's the reason they changed the law," Boiter said Tuesday morning. "It sent a message to Congress and the president."

"There's no doubt he's the reason they changed the law."

Kari Boiter, Americans for Safe Access

As jurors began deliberations, Rhonda Firestack-Harvey and her husband returned to their hotel to await a verdict. Firestack-Harvey, her son and daughter-in-law face lengthy prison sentences because prosecutors say they had firearms in the house where the marijuana was stored.

"We're gonna win it," Harvey said.

Legal experts say that's unlikely. In essence, all the jury has to do is conclude the group had marijuana, and that marijuana is illegal under federal law.

"It will be tough for the defendants to win, but every social movement uses martyrs (and) these folks may go down for the movement," Snyder said. "I think what you have is people who were caught absolutely dead to rights in violation of a law they don't agree with. And it's a law many people don't agree with."

In addition to permitting residents to grow medical marijuana, Washington state also permits recreational marijuana sale and use.