Washington Man Who Faces Years In Prison For Growing Medical Marijuana Has Cancer

Matt Ferner, Huffington Post

A Washington state man who is facing at least 10 years in prison if convicted in a high-profile federal case over growing medical marijuana for personal use has been diagnosed with cancer.

Larry Harvey, 71, has stage 4 cancer of the pancreas that has begun to spread to his liver, Harvey's wife, Rhonda Firestack-Harvey, told The Huffington Post in a written statement.

"Larry's health has been going downhill since this case began," Firestack-Harvey said. "This summer, he was hospitalized for ten days due to blood poisoning. That was the first sign of trouble with his pancreas. Larry took a sudden turn for the worse in December and we learned on his birthday that he has pancreatic cancer. Doctors have since confirmed that it is Stage IV and has started to spread to his liver. Larry had his second round of chemotherapy this Wednesday, followed by a blood transfusion on Thursday. We are trying to stay focused on his recovery, but the stress of trial in February makes this struggle even harder than it already is."

Harvey, along with his wife, Rhonda; their son, Rolland Gregg; Rolland's wife, Michelle Gregg; as well as close family friend Jason Zucker are all facing federal marijuana charges for growing about 70 cannabis plants for their own medical use at the Harveys' rural home. The family's defense attorneys have maintained the pot patch complied with state law. Washington legalized medical marijuana in 1998 and recreational marijuana in 2012. Still, federal law classifies marijuana a Schedule I substance "with no currently accepted medical use."

The federal government has charged each with multiple felonies, including manufacturing, possession and distribution of marijuana, as well as possessing a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking.

The family has said the firearms charge is due to the fact that they keep numerous firearms at the house, which is located in wilderness of northeast Washington state, near the U.S.-Canada border, for hunting and defense. But federal prosecutors say the presence of firearms shows the defendants were involved in drug trafficking.

If convicted, Harvey may not survive until the end of his sentence. The average life expectancy for a patient with metastatic pancreatic cancer is three to six months, according to the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research. Pancreatic cancer has the highest mortality rate of all major cancers, the foundation says.

Upon hearing about Harvey's deteriorating health condition, Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, told HuffPost that it's "outrageous" that the Department of Justice is still prosecuting medical marijuana patients.

"But it's especially shameful for the federal government to continue prosecuting 71-year-old Larry Harvey, who has now been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer that has metastasized to his liver," said Sherer, whose group advocates for increased legal access to marijuana and more research into the drug. "To make matters worse, the DOJ has prevented Larry for more than two years from using marijuana, a medicine that works effectively to treat his cancer and numerous other serious health conditions, while he awaits trial."

Some research has found that pot can help with the fight against cancer. One study found that purified forms of cannabis can be effective at destroying some forms of aggressive cancer cells, and another linked it to reduced tumor growth. When combined with radiation or chemotherapy, other research has suggested that cannabis can help to shrink some of the most aggressive types of cancerous tumors.

Harvey is currently barred from using cannabis in any form, even though its medical and recreational use are legal in his state. Similar to a probation sentence, an individual under pretrial supervision, like Harvey and the rest of the defendants in the case, is banned from using excessive alcohol or any drugs, including marijuana, medical or otherwise.

State authorities raided the Harvey home on Aug. 9, 2012, according to court documents. State law enforcers found 74 plants growing near the house. Under the presumption that the family was growing this cannabis as a collective, rather than individually, officers seized 29 cannabis plants so that the family would be compliant with state law, which limits collective crops to no more than 45 plants. State authorities did not press charges or seize anything else.

A week later, federal authorities conducted a more comprehensive raid, seizing the Harveys' remaining marijuana plants, as well as about five pounds of raw cannabis and some marijuana-infused edibles from the freezer. The feds also seized a 2007 sedan, several hundred dollars, firearms and some personal belongings.

"This is not the kind of spectacular haul that the DEA is typically called in for," the family's attorneys wrote in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder in February, urging him to reconsider the charges. "Just the opposite, the evidence seized is consistent with the type of strict medical dosage that occurs with a doctor's supervision."

In 2014, a federal judge ruled that the family cannot defend themselves against the charges by arguing their cannabis plants were for medical purposes and legal under state law.

Because the federal government considers cannabis to be illegal, federal courts generally don't allow evidence that the drug may have been used for medical purposes, even when medical marijuana is legal under a state's law.

In 2013, Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued new guidance for all U.S. attorneys, saying it is "not an efficient use of federal resources to focus [medical marijuana] enforcement efforts on seriously ill individuals." Now that Harvey's health has declined so severely, it's unclear if the memo could apply since the case began more than two years ago.

The DOJ did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the case or the possible application of Cole's memo.

Before the raid, Harvey, a recently retired commercial truck driver, ate marijuana-infused cookies to ease symptoms related to gout, chronic pain and inflammation, according to his attorneys. His wife, who suffers from osteoarthritis and has undergone joint and bone surgeries, used medical cannabis to ease her inflammation and pain, the lawyers said. Rolland Gregg and Zucker used medical marijuana to treat back injuries. Michelle Gregg used cannabis for appetite stimulation due to wasting brought on by a medical condition she hasn't disclosed.

Harvey family lawyers argue that the defendants were "clearly abiding by the rest of the priorities laid out in the latest Cole memo," and the U.S. attorney should therefore drop the charges.

During pre-trial hearings, the five defendants rejected plea deals offered by the prosecution that would have reduced their maximum prison sentences to three years. Without the deals, they each face maximum penalties that range up to 40 years to life in federal prison.

The Harvey trial is expected to begin in late February.