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Late last week, Larry Harvey, ASA’s 2015 Patient Lobbyist of the Year, passed away. When we got word at ASA of his death from cancer, I reflected on the few days I got to spend with Larry as we roamed the halls of Congress in support of the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment.
Larry became the public face of the federal government’s current crackdown on state medical marijuana patients a year ago, when the Kettle Falls Five case in Washington State came to national attention. After seven decades of relative anonymity working as a long-haul trucker and commercial fisherman, Larry’s courageous activism in his last years resulted in coverage from CNN, USA Today, and Reason Magazine of his family’s trial, and his passing last week was noted in the national media, including U.S. News and World Reports, Newsweek, to the Huffington Post.
The first time I heard about Larry was in April of 2014. A coworker called me, describing what was “easily the most egregious example of the federal government going directly after medical marijuana patients.” This was what came to be called the Kettle Falls Five case, and ASA began to work with Washington State patient advocate Kari Boiter and the legal team representing Larry and his family.
This was when ASA was building a strategy to make 2014 the year that we would finally pass the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment to cut off funds the Department of Justice was using to target medical cannabis programs and patients. We asked Larry to come to DC to meet with Members of Congress to tell them just how the federal government’s crackdown on patients was tearing his family apart.
In early May, Larry and Kari arrived in D.C., and we headed to the Capitol for meetings with Representatives with wide-ranging views on medical marijuana. Larry was well-received in the offices of our long-time patient champions, several of whom agreed to do a press conference with Larry to bring attention to his case. In meetings with less supportive members, we could see some minds changing as Larry shared how the feds coming onto his property and confiscating his beloved motorcycle and “everything shiny in the house.” As Larry told his story of being locked up and denied access to his gout medication, which with the high-sodium jail food diet cost him his ability to play guitar, more minds changed.
No meeting was complete without Larry bragging about the cannabis cookies his wife Rhonda used to make as his medication. I can still hear Larry’s words rattling in my ear:
“I never smoke the stuff,” he would say. “I did that once when I was young, and it made me want to curl up in the corner of the room. But one of Rhonda’s cookies at the end of the night just makes all the pain in my joints go away. Or at least it did before I got raided.”
Larry even started bragging about the cookie recipe during the press conference with members of Congress, prompting Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) to chime in that Larry had better be careful not to let out the family secret.
Following Larry’s visit to D.C., ASA was able to land more successful meetings with House offices, and, while still a long-shot, the 2014 Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment finally seemed to have a chance of passing. Watching the floor debate and vote with fingers crossed, we could hardly believe it when the final vote total flashed across the screen: a 219-189 victory! The first time Congress ever voted to protect medical marijuana patients. Larry Harvey had just helped make U.S. history.
With a Senate vote likely to occur a few weeks later, we worked to convince Larry’s pre-trial supervision officer and the judge to allow him to come back to DC. Thanks to work by Kari and Larry’s legal team, a second trip to DC was arranged. Many of the Senate meetings followed the familiar pattern of the first trip, but one meeting in an opponent's office got a little ugly. After a staffer heard from Larry that he didn’t realize his family was violating federal law by following state law, the staffer said with a chuckle, “Well, ignorance of law is no defense.” Kari and I gave that staffer an earful, but Larry took it in stride.
As Kari and I took turns pushing Larry’s wheelchair around the Senate, I couldn’t stop thinking that if the feds ever took Larry to trial, he was going to be convicted and sentenced to a lengthy prison term. Yet Larry always seemed unfazed. I was impressed by ability not to be overwhelmed with fear and anxiety. But relaxed did not mean he was unwilling to fight. His main goal was to deliver a letter to then-Attorney General Eric Holder to let him know about the injustice of the case. The Department of Justice is one of the most difficult buildings in D.C to get inside, ensconced in equally thick physical and bureaucratic walls, but Larry was undeterred. If there was one thing he was going to do while in D.C., it was deliver that letter. The guards outside the DOJ building were initially standoff-ish to our requests, but eventually helped us navigate the system. We may not have been able to put the letter directly in Holder’s hands, but Larry got his letter directly to a staffer to be sent up the chain.
After our second round of Capitol Hill meetings, Larry, Kari, and the ASA staff gathered for a dinner. Larry kept talking about all the wonderful food Rhonda made him and how he couldn’t wait to get home. He said that once this whole trial ended, he wanted all of us to come visit him so we could see his farm and sample his homemade sausage -- as if we needed more motivation to help the Kettle Falls Five win at trial. We said our goodbyes and looked forward to the next time we’d see each other.
Flash forward to December. The trial had been postponed again to February when we received news that Larry was diagnosed with stage-four cancer and only had months if not weeks to live. A few weeks later, President Obama signed into law the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, containing the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment that Larry had helped pass. A few weeks later, the feds announced they were dropping charges against Larry but continuing the prosecution against the remaining Kettle Falls Five defendants. (Ultimately, Larry’s family prevailed on all but one count and their sentencing was delayed until October.)
Over the next several months, I checked in on Larry and Rhonda’s Facebook pages, enjoying pictures of their many motorcycle trips and fishing expeditions. Larry seemed to be smiling and savoring every minute of life. Then the news came that we all knew would eventually: Larry was no longer with us.
Those few days I got to spend with Larry left a lasting impression. Without Larry, I don’t think we would have gotten the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment passed. Larry had the entire weight of the federal government crashing down upon him and his loved ones, yet somehow his grit and determination won. Our federal government may have stolen several years of his life and wellness, robbing him of prized possessions and time with his family and friends, but Larry Harvey died a free man, and the feds will never able to take that away from him.