Congressional vote expected this month to restrict DOJ enforcement against state-compliant patients like the "Kettle Falls 5"
Medical marijuana patient Larry Harvey, 70, traveled to Washington, D.C. last week to persuade Congress to stop funding unnecessary federal prosecutions like his. Harvey is one of the "Kettle Falls 5," a federal medical marijuana case that is scheduled to go to trial as soon as this week in Spokane, Washington. Despite repeated claims by the Obama Administration that it is not targeting individual patients, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has spent more than $3 million so far to prosecute five patients who were each growing less than 15 plants in accordance with state law. If convicted, the DOJ could spend as much as $13 million to send them to prison.
The "Kettle Falls 5" is made up of mostly family members, including Harvey, his wife Rhonda Firestack-Harvey, 55, her son Rolland Gregg, 33, daughter-in-law Michelle Gregg, 35, and friend of the family Jason Zucker, 38. All five are legal patients with serious medical conditions. Larry and Rhonda are retired and have a home in rural Washington State near the town of Kettle Falls. In August 2012, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) raided the property and seized 44 premature marijuana plants. Federal agents also confiscated the family's 2007 Saturn Vue, $700 in cash, their legally owned firearms, and other personal property.
"It's wrong what the federal government is doing to us," complained medical marijuana patient and federal defendant Larry Harvey. "I just want to make sure Congress knows what's happening so they can fix the law and so there's no more money wasted on cases like mine." Advocates have voiced concerns about Harvey's health and whether the Bureau of Prisons is capable of properly caring for him. Harvey's foot was permanently disfigured in 2012 after he was arrested, jailed for 17 days, and denied crucial medication.
Later this month, Congress is expected to vote on an amendment to an appropriations bill that will prohibit DOJ from spending funds on medical marijuana enforcement. Just last week, more Members of Congress voted in favor of medical marijuana policy reform than ever before. The historic 222-195 vote, which ultimately denied veterans' physicians the right to recommend marijuana to their patients, saw an increase of more than two-dozen Members of Congress since the last vote on medical marijuana, including 22 Republicans and a strong majority of freshman Members.
The upcoming federal trial is rare among medical marijuana cases and comes after two Department of Justice (DOJ) directives were issued in June 2011 and August 2013, both of which underscore that individual patients should be excluded from the agency's enforcement strategy. In the latest memorandum, Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole claimed that it was "not an efficient use of federal resources to focus enforcement efforts on seriously ill individuals." However, shortly before the raid on the Harvey home, U.S. Attorney for the eastern district of Washington Michael Ormsby stated his intent to "vigorously" target individuals "even if such activities are permitted under state law."
Notably, these federal prosecutions continue even after Washington voters approved Initiative 502 in November 2012, legalizing recreational use of marijuana. Nevertheless, the "Kettle Falls 5" were indicted in February 2013 and charged with six felonies each: conspiracy to manufacture and distribute marijuana, manufacture of marijuana, possession with intent to distribute marijuana, distribution of marijuana, possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime and maintaining a drug-involved premises. Ironically, last week, the State of Washington announced the results of a lottery to license large-scale distributors of recreational marijuana.
Despite an evolving political climate on medical marijuana, prosecutors are seeking mandatory minimum sentences of 10 years to life in prison, despite repeated calls by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in recent months for mandatory minimum sentencing reform for non-violent drug crimes in particular. The jury trial will be heard by U.S. District Judge Fred Van Sickle in Spokane. Because of marijuana's illegal status under federal law, patients like the "Kettle Falls 5" are typically prohibited from raising a medical necessity or state law defense in federal court, although motions are being heard on this issue tomorrow.
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