A Family of Medical Marijuana Growers, Facing 10 Years in Prison, Was Recently Acquitted on Almost All Charges Against Them

Heidi Groover, The Stranger

"You're not a cog in the machine of the federal government," attorney Phil Telfeyan told a jury drawn from self-reliant Eastern Washington on March 2. "You can stand up and say, 'No. The evidence isn't there.'" And that's exactly what they did.

The 12 jurors had been charged with weighing the case of the "Kettle Falls Five," a family of Eastern Washington medical marijuana growers we wrote about in last week's paper. The case had become a widely watched referendum on federal versus state law, making it extra consequential that the family was acquitted on four of the five charges leveled against them. (The original five defendants were whittled down to three shortly before the trial, when the Feds cut a deal with one of them and dropped the charges against another who's now battling late-stage cancer.) "It's not a complete win," said defense attorney Jeffrey Niesen after a court clerk read the verdict and the family was released until sentencing in June. "But it's as good as we could have hoped for and still suffered a conviction."

The backstory: Larry and Rhonda Harvey, Rhonda's son Rolland Gregg and his wife Michelle, and their family friend Jason Zucker grew 74 marijuana plants on the Harveys' property two hours north of Spokane until they were raided in 2012, first by county officials and then by the DEA. Near a stash of dried marijuana in the house, authorities found three guns the Harveys say they used for hunting and protection from wild animals. That landed them in trouble, facing charges of growing and selling marijuana and owning guns "in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime."

While the defendants hadn't strictly followed Washington's medical marijuana law, the federal government's response reflected the strange age we're in, where, despite state movements to legalize pot, the Feds still consider the drug more dangerous than cocaine and meth. On top of that, pot cases become especially urgent to federal prosecutors if guns are involved, and in Eastern Washington that's almost inevitable. On top of that, because any amount of marijuana is federally illegal, regardless of its use, defense attorneys couldn't argue their case based on the family's medical conditions or the fact that they each had a doctor's recommendation for medical cannabis. That led to a strange sequence of events in the courtroom, in which attorneys couldn't even say the words "medical marijuana" and the judge asked audience members wearing pins and shirts advocating for medical marijuana to remove them.

It remains unclear whether the jury was simply unconvinced by the government's argument or was relaying some sort of protest—perhaps feeling, like an increasingly large portion of voters do, that marijuana is no longer worth such federal enforcement. But the medical marijuana activists who've been working to bring attention to the case saw it as a win bigger than just this one family.

"This sends the hugest message ever to [US Attorney for Eastern Washington] Michael Ormsby, and I hope he's listening right now," said Kari Boiter, of the national group Americans for Safe Access. What kind of message? "It's legal, and in Washington it has been for 17 years. Can we please stop wasting taxpayer dollars on these types of cases?"