Republican congressman says pot 'can be a lifesaving drug.'

Steven Nelson, U.S. News & World Report

Days before his federal trial begins in Spokane, wheelchair-bound medical marijuana user Larry Harvey, 70, joined members of Congress to support legislation that would block federal law enforcement efforts against people who use pot as medicine.

Marijuana “can be a lifesaving drug,” Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., said at a Wednesday press conference near the Capitol, touting states’ rights and the medicinal benefits of cannabis. “Doctors all across the country should be able to prescribe this drug, like any other drug.”

Harvey suffers from knee pain and gout – and to treat himself grew a patch of marijuana on his rural Washington state property. He painted a large white sign with a medical marijuana symbol to mark the garden, which he suspects alerted law enforcement performing flyovers.

“At night when my knee is throbbing, I can take a little marijuana cookie and in five minutes the pain is gone,” he said. “You don’t feel bombed or buzzed.”

Harvey’s home was raided in August 2012 by the Drug Enforcement Administration, after state officials visited but did not arrest him. He’s being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Washington alongside three family members and a friend, jointly referred to as “the Kettle Falls Five.”

Although medical marijuana and collective gardens were legalized under Washington state law following a 1998 voter initiative, the drug remains illegal under federal law.

Federal agents seized 44 plants and about 5 pounds of marijuana from Harvey's home, along with a car, cash, an all-terrain vehicle and guns. Citing seized photographs, they charged him with growing more than 100 plants, increasing possible penalties.

Harvey faces a minimum of 10 years in prison if convicted of all charges.

The defendants are upset that guidance issued by Attorney General Eric Holder to U.S. attorneys is being ignored and are asking the nation’s top law enforcement official to intervene.

In August Holder directed federal prosecutors to avoid charges that come with mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. In 2009 his department encouraged prosecutors to avoid pursuing sick people complying with state medical marijuana laws.

The defendants, each of whom self-treated with the marijuana, refused plea deals last week to serve three years in prison. U.S. District Judge Fred Van Sickle ruled Tuesday they cannot

 present medical claims at trial, deeming their intent “not relevant" to the charges.

Harvey candidly told reporters and officials on Capitol Hill about how his wife made marijuana-laced butter in a crock pot and joked that DEA agents riffled through his wife’s underwear drawer and found his father-in-law’s ashes – “they really thought they had something,” he recalled with a chuckle.

“It’s embarrassing that our country has this hard line policy at the federal level,” said Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif.

Farr, Broun and Reps. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., and Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., are among the eight congressmen planning to introduce an amendment to the an appropriations bill that would ban the use of federal funds to prosecute people like Harvey.

A similar 2007 amendment was defeated in a 262-165 vote. Broun was among 15 Republican who voted in favor.

Reformers sense momentum after 195 members of the House - including 22 Republicans - voted April 30 to allow doctors at the Veterans Health Administration to discuss marijuana as medicine with patients without institutional punishment. That effort was defeated, with 222 members voting against the amendment.

One of the 222 “no” votes, Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., introduced a bill last week to remove barriers to doctors prescribing marijuana. Farr said others regret their votes and is cautiously optimistic about the forthcoming vote.

“You know what I do for pain now? Suffer it,” Harvey said. “I don’t take prescription pain killers. Those are chemicals I don’t need in my body.”

Farr chimed in: “The irony is, in this state [doctors] can prescribe OxyContin,” a highly addictive and often abused opioid.

Broun, a family doctor before joining Congress in 2007, shared stories of epilepsy and cancer patients he treated. A girl suffering from seizures had to be placed in medical comas, but “could very well have been able to live a normal life” if federal law didn’t classify marijuana as a Schedule I drug, he said. That classification prohibits doctors from prescribing it (in states allowing medical marijuana doctors “recommend” it instead).

Harvey’s trial begins May 12. After his press conference on Capitol Hill – organized by the advocacy group Americans for Safe Access – he planned to visit the Department of Justice to hand-deliver his plea for help, which he says has thus-far been ignored.

Twenty-one states and Washington, D.C., currently allow medical marijuana. The issue will be on the November ballot in Florida and possibly in Arkansas and Oklahoma. A poll released in April by Pew found 77 percent of Americans believe marijuana has legitimate medical uses.