Feds keep up prosecution of Washington medical marijuana patients despite Congressional order to stand down
Three members of the so-called Kettle Falls Five are breathing a slight sigh of relief after a federal judge delayed their sentencing scheduled this week for growing medical marijuana.
But with the Department of Justice continuing to zealously pursue up to 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine for Rolland Gregg, his wife Michelle and mother Rhonda Firestack-Harvey, their fight for freedom is far from over.
As Roland showed me some of the many futuristic energy projects he’s working on in his Seattle lab, it’s clear the guy is nothing short of a genius.
The former GM marketing executive and pro snowboarder has made a great living for years and has devoted himself to bringing new energy sources to the world, so it’s not likely that he or his family would risk running an illegal marijuana grow operation or selling pot.
“We didn’t need the money and certainly wouldn’t risk it,” Rolland said. “In fact, we’ve paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes to the government over the last five years that they’ve been prosecuting us, literally. It’s like we’re paying for the prosecution against ourself [sic]. It’s a Twilight Zone for sure.”
That twilight zone has led to what’s become known as the Kettle Falls Five case.
It started when Rolland, Michelle, his mom and ailing step dad and a friend were busted for growing medical marijuana on his mom’s sprawling property in Eastern Washington — following what they thought were the state rules.
All had a variety of health conditions and prescriptions for medical marijuana.
Rolland used cannabis to battle debilitating pain and arthritis from a broken neck suffered while snowboarding. His mom, now in her mid 50’s, is a retired hairdresser with degenerative discs, arthritis, and osteoporosis. Stepfather Larry is a 70-year-old retired long-haul truck driver who suffered from painful swelling due to gout, a bad knee, and high blood pressure.
After spending thousands of dollars on medical marijuana at local dispensaries in the Seattle area where Rolland and Michelle lived, and in Spokane where Larry and Rhonda had retired, they decided to grow their own.
“We’ve been saying yes we did this,” Rolland said. “It’s not trying to deny we did this. We’re just saying that it’s legal.”
They even posted a 4-by-8-foot plywood sign with a large green cross visible from the air alongside the field they started on their land nine miles north of Colville.
A civil air patrol hunting for pot grows ultimately saw it, and in August 2012 the local sheriff raided the property.
“My mom was the only one home. They came in with a full SWAT team and terrified her, treating her like some big drug dealer,” Rolland said.
But the county prosecutor determined they were more or less following state law, and no arrests were made or charges filed.
Under the rules, an individual can grow up to 15 plants, but the rules for how many plants they could have in a so-called collective garden had changed and they had exceeded it by about 25 plants — which the sheriff took.
One week later, the DEA raided property and ultimately arrested all five. While Rolland and Michelle were released a day later in Western Washington, Larry, Rhonda and their friend Jason Zucker — the man who helped establish the garden — spent nearly two weeks in jail.
“Larry was denied his medicine and suffered excruciating pain. His legs were permanently disfigured and they wouldn’t do a thing to help him,” Rolland said.
The federal government threw the book at the five, charging them with a variety of crimes, including distribution and even weapons charges — for the old hunting rifles seized from the family.
It’s a mystery to Rolland and Michelle, who live in the Seattle area, why they were targeted, unlike the thousands of others doing exactly the same thing.
“It boggles our mind. I have no idea why. I think they’re just hoping they can scare people and plea out,” said Michelle, a longtime marketing specialist at Microsoft.
They did scare the group, but Rolland, Michelle and his mom refused to roll over — even after a number of threats and what Michelle calls “strong-armed intimidation tactics.”
The feds dropped charges against Larry, now dying of Pancreatic cancer. Jason cut a deal to testify against them.
But the three went to trial this spring and after five days in March, a federal jury in Spokane acquitted the three of all charges, except for one lesser offense of growing between 50-100 plants.
It was an overwhelming rebuke of the prosecution, and supported the family’s contention they were simply growing marijuana for their own medical purposes, said Phil Telfeyan, a civil rights attorney who volunteered to work for the family pro bono after learning of their case.
“The jury completely rejected any notion that there was a drug conspiracy, they completely rejected any notion that there was distribution, they completely rejected any notion that there were guns or violence involved at all,” Telfeyan said following the verdict.
But the remaining manufacturing charge is still a federal offense. And the U.S. Attorney’s office in Spokane is pushing for the maximum sentence. A federal judge could sentence them to up to 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine, Rolland says, even though what they did is legal in Washington state.
The federal prosecutor even called for the trio to be jailed immediately following the verdict until sentencing. A judge rejected the motion.
“That solidified again in my mind just how fiercely they are trying to prosecute us on something. They just want to lock us up. I don’t know, it’s crazy,” Michelle said.
The feds could simply drop the last remaining charge, which a number of Congress members have urged them to do.
A bi-partisan measure passed overwhelmingly last week by the U.S. House specifically renews a Congressional prohibition on the Department of Justice using federal funds to pursue medical marijuana prosecutions.
California Congressman Sam Farr, a Democrat, sent a sharply worded letter along with his colleague, Republican Dana Rohrabacher, making clear the DOJ is ignoring the intent and letter of the law.
“We don’t want the DOJ messing around in states that have legally adopted approval and use of medical marijuana,” Farr said in a phone interview.
In a recent statement, DOJ spokesman Patrick Rodenbush said the measure doesn’t apply to cases against individuals or organizations, but merely stops the Department from “impeding the ability of states to carry out their medical marijuana laws.”
“I don’t know whether they’re listening or not,” Farr said. “I have a feeling that they try to interpret depending on selective prosecution, and I’m very upset about that.”
The U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Washington, Michael Ormsby, has refused to comment on the reason for the seemingly overzealous and arbitrary prosecution that’s drawn international attention and criticism.
A spokesman said Monday the office won’t comment while the case remains ongoing to maintain “fairness.”
The family is also upset with Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson for failing to defend them or the state’s medical marijuana laws. An assistant attorney general met with them to discuss the case but refused to take action, Rolland said.
A spokesman for the Attorney General’s office said he would look into the reasoning, but did not respond to a follow up request for comment Monday.
Sentencing scheduled for this week has been postponed until October, leaving the family in their continued purgatory, wondering if they’ll be locked up for 20 years for doing what they were told was perfectly legal.
But they vow to keep fighting, regardless of the outcome.
In the meantime, they’re asking for people to write letters to the judge on their behalf. Over one thousand have done so at this point.
“Yeah, I’m super scared to go to prison,” Michelle said. “But I know in my heart that we can make a difference here for other people. I mean so many other people could be in our shoes right now. So for us, it’s more than just about us. And we’re going to keep fighting until the end. And even if we’re locked up, we’ll keep fighting from there.”