It is disheartening to hear that any nonviolent person goes to prison for marijuana. It is even more disturbing when those sentenced were cultivating for medical purposes in accordance with state law. Unfortunately, such a tragic sentence has been levied against three members of a group of Washington State cultivators, dubbed the Kettle Falls Five, recently in federal court. Reason’s Jacob Sullum reports:
On Friday the three remaining defendants in the Kettle Falls Five marijuana case, which involves Washington residents who grew their own medicine in a state that allowed them to do so, were sentenced to federal prison. Rolland Gregg got 33 months—more than two and a half years—while his mother, Rhonda Firestack-Harvey, and his wife, Michelle Gregg, each received a one-year sentence. Those terms are much shorter than the potential sentences they faced when their trial started in March, which included a 10-year mandatory minimum. But any prison time at all for growing 70 or so marijuana plants would beanomalous in a state where hundreds of state-licensed businesses, serving recreational consumers as well as patients, openly grow and sell much larger amounts.
Federal prosecutors contended that the Greggs and Firestack-Harvey—together with her husband, Larry Harvey, who died of pancreatic cancer last August, and a family friend, Jason Zucker, whopleaded guilty just before the trial in exchange for a 16-month sentence—were growing marijuana for distribution. But there was little evidence of that. The five of them openly grew their plants outside the home that Rhonda and Larry shared in northeastern Washington, on a plot marked by a sign bearing a large green cross that was visible from the air. They all had doctor’s letters recommending marijuana for the treatment of various conditions, including gout, anorexia, rheumatoid arthritis, degenerative disc disease, and chronic pain from a broken back. Their plant total was below Washington’s presumptive limit of 15 per patient, and prosecutors could not cite a single sale by what they described as a criminal enterprise or any evidence of large illicit profits.
U.S. Attorney Michael Ormsby’s interest in this case was puzzling from the beginning, especially given the relatively small number of plants involved, and seemed to contradict a Justice Department policy that says prosecuting medical marijuana patients who comply with state law is generally not a good use of federal resources. Continued pursuit of the case also seemed to violate a spending rider aimed at stopping federal interference with state medical marijuana laws. Before the rider was approved last year, the DOJ warned that it would have a dramatic impact on federal cultivation and distribution cases; after it was approved, the department suddenly decided it had no impact at all. Rice rejected the argument that the rider compelled Ormsby to drop the Kettle Falls Five case, which is one of the possible grounds for appeal.
As Sullum notes, the prosecution of the Kettle Falls Five seems to contradict both Justice Department policy and federal budget rules. Hopefully, an appeals court will agree that the congressional spending rider, prohibiting federal resources from interfering with state-legal medical cannabis laws, and overturn this unfortunate sentence. I wish that I was confident that a federal appeals court will agree.
How are federal priorities enhanced by the investigation, prosecution and imprisonment of these nonviolent citizens? Can anyone legitimately justify that the time and money spent on this medical marijuana case was the best use of hard-earned tax dollars? The fact that cases like this occur will only quicken the end of cannabis prohibition, as no reasonable person could conclude that trampling the will of voters and needlessly harming the lives of nonviolent citizens, is the best policy for the United States of America; tragically, good people must pay the price for a failed policy that will inevitably end sooner than later.