Despite all the talk of legalization in Washington State, despite the fact that the law went into place more than two years ago, and despite the reality that even mainstream political figures like Hillary Clinton vocally support medical marijuana, the Feds still sometimes go after growers in our state. Even growers who have doctors' recommendations for marijuana use.
I went to Spokane less than a year ago to watch the federal trial of a family of marijuana growers in Eastern Washington. They were called the Kettle Falls Five in the media, although by the end of the trial, one was sick with cancer and the charges against him had been dropped, and another had turned on his codefendants.
The case was shocking: Four members of a family and one family friend had been growing just 74 plants the summer they were raided. State law allows 15 plants per medical marijuana patient—5 times 15 equals 75—but that same state law allows only 45 plants in a collective. Federal law doesn't allow any marijuana—medical or otherwise.
Because of that, the family couldn't discuss their medical use of marijuana during the trial because there is no such thing under federal law. Advocates in the room wearing T-shirts and pins with messages about medical cannabis were told to remove them. The two sides had to make their case under federal law, giving the Feds a significant advantage. According to the federal government, marijuana is still considered more dangerous than meth.
The charges were dramatic: growing and distributing marijuana and possessing guns in "furtherance of a drug trafficking crime." The family lived in rural Washington, where guns are commonplace. As the trial neared, charges were dropped against the patriarch of the family, Larry Harvey, who was diagnosed with cancer (and has since died). The family friend, Jason Zucker, took a last-minute plea deal and testified against the others. Harvey's wife, Rhonda Firestack-Harvey, and her son and daughter-in-law, Rolland and Michelle Gregg, remained.
When a jury found them guilty of growing fewer than 100 plants, the family, their lawyers, and the advocates who'd brought their case into the national media consciousness knew it was probably the best they could have hoped for. The Feds had tried to use photographic evidence to suggest they'd grown more than 100 plants over two years, but the jury didn't buy it. The jury also didn't buy the Feds' argument that the guns showed they were drug traffickers. If they had been convicted of having more than 100 plants and of having guns in furtherance of drug trafficking, the charges would have qualified the defendants for mandatory minimum sentencing rules and possibly 5 or 10 years in prison.
Seven months after the verdict came the sentencing. While the family hadn't been allowed to mention medical marijuana during their trial, their attorney was allowed to discuss it during sentencing. It didn't seem to help. Rolland Gregg received a sentence of two years and nine months. Michelle Gregg and Rhonda Firestack-Harvey were sentenced to one year and one day each. All three of them will face fines and supervised release after they're free. Zucker, the family friend who testified against the others, got a year and four months.
When I read a story in Spokane's daily newspaper on the day of the sentencing, there was one line I couldn't stop reading over and over. The judge, Thomas Rice, "found that the members of the family did grow and use marijuana for medicinal purposes," the story read. "But that did not factor into his sentence."
The details of the Kettle Falls Five case were always fuzzy. While all five of them had a doctor's recommendation to use medical marijuana, they also had a lot of weed. The jury couldn't find enough evidence to convict them of distribution, but it's not a stretch to imagine they may have shared it with friends or sold some. In comment sections on news stories about this case, people really liked to speculate about the details around how many plants a marijuana patient needs, arguing that reporters like me were giving the family too much sympathy.
But even if the most cynical observer of this case was right on every point, does putting these people in federal prison make any sense?
In a recent story in the Washington Post about the upcoming release of about 6,000 inmates, "overcrowding" is listed in the first sentence as a reason for the move. The racial disproportionality of the drug war and its mandatory minimums have been well documented. (One advocate who worked on the Kettle Falls Five case told me early on that she doubted she would have gotten such national media attention if she had been defending a young black man.) More than 20 states have now legalized medical marijuana and four—plus Washington, DC—have okayed recreational cannabis in some form.
It was that backdrop of changing priorities that made this case of a few small-time growers with hunting rifles in Eastern Washington—whether they sold any pot or not—especially excessive. They now all have felony convictions on their records. On top of the costs of the trial (the federal prosecutor, the judge, the courtroom staff, the jury), housing the group in federal prison for the sentences they received will cost taxpayers somewhere around $175,000.
That may be a small sum in comparison to the full federal budget, sure—but for what? As voters' opinions have shifted on marijuana—medical or not—the federal government has failed to keep up. Until that changes, people like the Kettle Falls Five will continue to face time behind bars, even in states where marijuana is legal.