Feds seek prison for rural Washington pot growers

Nicholas Geranios, Associated Press

The green-cross storefronts of medical marijuana dispensaries are common in much of Washington, and the state is plowing ahead with licensing people to grow and sell recreational pot to adults.

But a federal trial scheduled to begin in the coming weeks for five people in Spokane suggests not all is OK with weed in the state.

Larry Harvey, a 70-year-old medical marijuana patient with no criminal history, three of his relatives and a family friend each face mandatory minimum sentences of at least 10 years in prison after they were caught growing about 70 pot plants on their rural, mountainous property.

The Harveys did have guns at their home, which is part of the reason for the lengthy possible prison time. They say the weapons were for hunting and protection, but prosecutors say two of the guns were loaded and in the same room as a blue plastic tub of pot.

Medical marijuana advocates have cried foul, arguing the prosecution violates Department of Justice policies announced by Attorney General Eric Holder last year that nonviolent, small-time drug offenders shouldn't face lengthy prison sentences.

"This case is another glaring example of what's wrong with the federal policy on cannabis," said Kari Boiter, Washington state coordinator for the medical marijuana group Americans for Safe Access.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Harrington, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Spokane, said he could not discuss the upcoming trial or the office's general approach to pot crimes.

But the case illustrates discrepancies in how law enforcement officials are handling marijuana cases as Washington — with the Justice Department's blessing — moves ahead with its grand experiment in pot legalization. Medical marijuana gardens the size of the Harveys' rarely draw attention from authorities in the Seattle area.

Under Initiative 502 about 30 people have so far been licensed to grow marijuana for sale at recreational pot shops slated to begin opening in July. Commercial medical marijuana dispensaries also operate in many cities, especially in Western Washington, generally considered the liberal half of the state.

Under federal law, marijuana remains illegal, and what the licensed growers are doing differs little from what Harvey and his family did.

In Colorado, the other state to legalize recreational marijuana, many pot shops even have armed security guards. Under federal law, that looks a lot like possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. There have been no recent federal charges involving commercial dispensaries in Western Washington or in Colorado absent indications of further criminality.

"Where commercial outlets are largely permitted in Western Washington, the (U.S. Attorney's Office) in Eastern Washington is subjecting individual patients to mandatory minimum prison sentences for private cultivation," defense attorneys in the Harvey case wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder, asking him to review the prosecution.

The DOJ has said since 2009 that prosecuting marijuana patients isn't a priority. It's allowing states to regulate marijuana for recreational or medical use, but it has reserved the right to target operations that don't follow state law or have ties to organized crime.

Defense lawyers say Spokane U.S. Attorney Mike Ormsby has charged cases that likely would not have been prosecuted in state court, where the defendants could have argued that they were complying with Washington's medical marijuana law, approved by voters in 1998. One defendant pleaded guilty to federal charges last week for having a 32-plant medical marijuana grow, to avoid a weapons charge for having guns at his house.

Douglas Hiatt, a Seattle lawyer, said the federal prosecutions are undermining the state's medical marijuana law.

Harvey, along with his wife, Rhonda Firestack-Harvey; her son, Rolland Gregg, and his wife, Michelle Gregg; and their friend, Jason Zucker, all had medical authorizations to use marijuana under state law. The Greggs and Zucker live in the Seattle area, and lawyers in the case say Zucker is the only one with previous criminal history, a conviction for marijuana growing. Harvey said he eats pot-laced cookies to ease pain from gout.

Douglas Phelps, a lawyer for Rolland Gregg, said many defendants feel they have no choice but to plead guilty to avoid long sentences, but the family feels strongly they did nothing wrong.

"Most people wouldn't take the chance of being convicted at trial," he said.