This July, five Washington medical marijuana patients will be tried in federal court in Spokane. The plight of these defendants, known as the Kettle Falls Five, has started to gain national attention. Despite the passage of I-502 and the overwhelming popular support across the nation for allowing the use of medical marijuana, the ugliest aspects of the drug war continue in this state, if only in the parts where fewer people live.
The facts of the case are relatively simple. On August 9, 2012, police came to the home of 70-year-old Larry Harvey and his 55-year-old wife Rhonda Firestack-Harvey in Kettle Falls, WA. The Harveys had a collective garden of marijuana plants used to provide relief for themselves and three others patients – their son, his wife, and a family friend – all with valid doctor’s authorizations. Here in Washington state, where an attempt to create a fully regulated medical marijuana distribution system failed in 2011, this was still the only proper legal avenue for medical marijuana patients to provide for themselves.
During this initial visit by police, Harvey was in violation of state law in only one way. He had too many plants in his garden. Collective gardens are limited to 15 plants per patient with a maximum of 45. Many gardens have tried to get around the maximum limit by establishing multiple plots on a single property, but officials generally don’t allow that when they come across it. As a result, police confiscated the 29 plants over the limit and left them with 45.
In most parts of the state, that would be the end of it. Here in very rural Stevens County, it wasn’t. A week later, another group of law enforcement officials showed up. These were federal officials, and federal law still maintains that any amount of marijuana is illegal. During this raid, they took all the plants and confiscated their car, motorcycle, ATV, computers, cash, and several legally owned firearms. The U.S. Attorney’s office for Eastern Washington is charging all five as drug traffickers, using the confiscated firearms as justification for the harsh charges. Because of federal mandatory minimums, all five are facing minimums of a decade or more behind bars.
Ever since Obama came into office, there have been assurances that the federal government will respect state marijuana laws. But the memos issued by the DOJ to provide guidance have given individual U.S. Attorneys enough leeway to bring about these types of senseless prosecutions. In Washington, the more liberal western half of the state has been more lenient. In the more conservative eastern half, under U.S. Attorney Mike Ormsby, we’ve seen several prosecutions of individuals who were attempting to comply with state law.
In the end, five individuals who pose no threat whatsoever to society will be sitting in a Spokane courtroom this summer fighting to stay out of jail for decades. None of these individuals were doing anything different from what thousands of other Washington residents have been doing. And yet, because of the way federal trials are stacked against defendants, none of the five will be able to present evidence that they were medical marijuana patients or that they were attempting to comply with state law. None of those facts are relevant in a federal trial so federal judges routinely bar those defenses from being made.
Even worse, the seriousness of the charges being thrown at these defendants comes from the fact that they were also legal gun owners. Even putting aside the fact that gun ownership in rural Stevens County isn’t unusual, folks who maintain medical marijuana gardens across the state are at a higher risk of having armed intruders trying to rob them. It makes sense for them to be armed. They’d be crazy not to have guns for their own protection. Yet this fact has allowed Ormsby’s office to charge these five innocent people as if they were operating as some kind of dangerous drug cartel. This is completely insane.
It’s hard to accept that this level of bullshit still happens in Washington in 2014. When this trial begins in July, adult residents of Spokane will be able to walk into newly-opened state-licensed retail stores and buy marijuana for recreational use. Yet this trial will continue in that same city, within a giant bubble of bullshit carefully crafted to blindfold the reality that the Harveys are the real victims here. Hopefully, the pleas to Attorney General Holder will be heard and this outrageous abuse of power will be ended before then.