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By Steven Nelson US News and World Report
Larry Harvey visited the nation’s capital in May 2014 and sat in a wheelchair outside Congress, flanked by lawmakers appalled that the Obama administration wanted to put him and his family in prison for roughly complying with Washington state’s marijuana laws.
Three weeks later, marijuana reformers won their first major victory in Congress. The House of Representatives voted 219-189 to ban the Justice Department from spending money to undermine state medical marijuana programs.
Harvey, 71, died Thursday afternoon from pancreatic cancer and will be remembered as the public face of his family’s refusal to accept prison terms for tending a collective garden in rural Washington that they marked with a large sign visible from the air.
The so-called Kettle Falls Five -- Harvey, his wife Rhonda Firestack-Harvey, their son, a daughter-in-law and a family friend -- refused plea deals that would have landed them three years in prison in a state where regulated shops sell marijuana to anyone 21 or older.
An anti-marijuana U.S. attorney’s office in eastern Washington zealously pursued the five following a 2012 raid by DEA agents, and the case quickly attracted headlines.
Harvey insisted the group -- each member of which had a state medical pot card -- had done nothing wrong with their 74-plant garden and candidly shared how Firestack-Harvey brewed marijuana butter for use in medicated cookies that allowed him to sleep through gout pain.
Washington state law allowed patients to grow 15 plants each, with a cap of 45 plants in collective gardens. Family attorneys pointed out the five defendants were within the 15-plant-per-person limit.
Harvey was excused from the case before trial, after his cancer diagnosis. The rest of the family was found not guilty in March of most federal charges against them, but were convicted of growing between 50 and 100 pot plants. Sentencing is scheduled for October, where they face a possible 20 years in prison but hope for probation. The family friend accepted a plea deal and much of the blame.
The prosecution appeared to fly in the face of 2009 guidance from the Department of Justice that federal prosecutors should not target medical marijuana patients and came as the Justice Department allowed state-regulated recreational marijuana markets to open in Colorado and Washington state.
Americans overwhelmingly support medical marijuana, according to polls, but at trial the patients were not allowed to say they grew the drug for state-permitted medical use.
Possession of marijuana for any reason outside limited research is a federal crime, regardless of state laws allowing medical or recreational use. Prosecutors and judges presiding over the case decided informing the jury about state law would be confusing and irrelevant.
Still, jurors appeared to recognize they weren’t dealing with a drug cartel and acquitted them of distribution, conspiracy, cultivation of more than 100 plants and use of firearms in furtherance of a drug trafficking charges.
The advocacy group Americans for Safe Access estimates the prosecution cost the federal government $2 million. The budget amendment passed by Congress ahead of the trial could not have forced an end to a standing prosecution, and a judge found it would not apply anyhow because the defendants allegedly broke state law.
"Larry will be remembered as a fighter until the bitter end,” his family said in a statement circulated by Kari Boiter, who played a major role publicizing the case.
“He fearlessly confronted the federal government head on and beat the Department of Justice, against all odds. In a so-called justice system where less than two percent of defendants walk free, Larry was able to leave the federal courthouse with his head held high after the U.S. Attorney dropped all charges against him.”
The family said “Larry’s triumph was made all the more satisfying when the Feds were forced to return his beloved motorcycle, confiscated in the 2012 raid of Larry’s family home,” which he spent his final months enjoying.
The budget amendment that Harvey lobbied for became law in December when it was included in a large spending deal. The House of Representative voted to reauthorize the language by a larger 242-186 margin in June.