Family guilty of growing pot; acquitted of other charges

Trevor Hughes, USA Today

Federal jurors on Tuesday convicted a family of growing marijuana on their property, but acquitted them of the more serious charges they faced in what legalization advocates called an important win for medical cannabis users.

Although Washington state has legalized both medical and recreational marijuana, the defendants were barred from telling jurors they had medical marijuana recommendations from their doctors. That's because federal law makes no distinction between medical and recreational marijuana — it's all illegal.

Legalization advocates said they hoped the case would prompt federal prosecutors across the country to reconsider how they pursue cases against medical marijuana users.

"I'm scared and excited all at the same time," Rhonda Firestack-Harvey said Tuesday night after jurors convicted her, her son, and daughter-in-law. Shaking in the cold night air outside the courthouse, Firestack-Harvey said the acquittal on the most serious charges gave her hope.

"It's much less than I feared," Firestack-Harvey said. "Now we get to tell our side of the story. We had our medical cards from the doctor and we needed that for our illnesses, our serious illnesses."

Jurors acquitted the three of conspiracy, distribution and firearms charges, which would have triggered mandatory minimum sentences of 10 years. Judge Thomas Rice later this summer will decide their sentences on the single marijuana manufacturing charge.

A grand jury initially also indicted Firestack-Harvey's husband, Larry, along with a family friend, after a 2012 raid on their Kettle Falls home. But prosecutors shortly before trial dropped the charges against Larry Harvey because he's suffering from late-stage pancreatic cancer, and cut a plea deal with the friend, who testified he fronted the money and did most of the growing.

Federal prosecutors, who did not speak to reporters after the verdict, had argued the family was using medical marijuana as a cover for its illegal drug-distribution conspiracy. Police seized about 8 pounds of marijuana from the Harvey home in 2012.

The case against the "Kettle Falls Five" became a rallying cry for legalization advocates, who said American voters have repeatedly approved medical marijuana laws to protect people in this situation. The fact that federal prosecutors forged ahead even after Congress late last year ordered the Justice Department to leave alone states with medical marijuana just added fuel to the fire for legalization advocates.

The wheelchair-bound Harvey testified on Capitol Hill shortly before Congress passed the Department of Justice restriction, showing that federal prosecutors were indeed bringing cases against sick people using marijuana, said Kari Boiter of Americans for Safe Access. The group supported the Harveys during the trial, hoping to use their case to draw attention to the conflicting federal and state marijuana laws

"This is a win," Boiter said Tuesday night after hugging Firestack-Harvey. "We always knew there would be a guilty verdict on the manufacturing."

Legal experts said the decision could give federal prosecutors pause about bringing charges against other marijuana users.

"I think that it is something that can send a signal," said Frank Snyder, a Texas A&M School of Law professor and marijuana-law expert who has been following the case. "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."

Snyder added: "I think (this case) will provide some more ammunition for the legalization movement."

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