The State of Washington allows residents to grow marijuana for recreational and medical use. Of course, marijuana is still an illegal drug under Federal law. The Department of Justice has issued two directives instructing US Attorneys not to prosecute cases against patients using medical marijuana. But the US attorney for the eastern district of Washington announced his intent to "vigorously" target individuals "even if such activities are permitted under state law."
And that's exactly what he did. In August of 2012, Federal agents raided the rural home of Larry Harvey, 70, and his wife, Rhonda Firestack-Harvey, 55. The two, along with their son, daughter-in-law, and a friend had a small marijuana plot in a remote corner of their 33-acre property. The Feds seized plants, $700 in cash, and some legally owned firearms. The "Kettle Falls Five" were indicted for five felonies involving the manufacture and distribution of marijuana, despite the fact that the government couldn't point to a single instance of any of them selling the drug. They were also charged with possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. Conviction would result in a 10-year minimum mandatory prison sentence.
Only three of the five wound up going to trial. Just before the trial started, the government dismissed the charges against Harvey because he was dying of pancreatic cancer. The friend copped a plea and agreed to testify against the defendants in return for a 16-month sentence. The judge ruled that the remaining defendants couldn't argue that their actions were in compliance with state law.
The jury came back with a conviction -- on the manufacture of marijuana charge. It acquitted on the other four counts, the ones which involved mandatory prison time. The prosecutor immediately asked the judge to remand the defendants until sentencing. One of the spectators could be heard muttering, "Are you kidding?" The judge denied the request.
Sentencing is set for June 10. The US Attorney said that the verdict would do nothing to change the way his office prosecutes these cases.
I'm old enough to remember the trial of the Panther 21. The Black Panthers were a paramilitary group of black activists back in the 60's and early 70's, whose contributions were two-fold: they were extraordinarily successful at scaring the living hell out of white people, and at getting themselves killed by each other or by the police.
In 1969, the Panthers decided to conduct a coordinated attack on two police stations, several department stores, and an office building in New York City. An extraordinarily inept organization, they put less thought in how to do so than I spend on preparing my weekly jaunt to the grocery store. Twenty-one were caught and indicted. The government spent eight months trying the case, relying primarily upon informants (one of whom had been diagnosed as a schizophrenic and pathological liar), in front of a grossly biased judge who did nothing to conceal his contempt for the defendants and their attorneys. The culmination of all this was the prosecutor suffering the ignominy of sitting there while the jury foreman intoned "not guilty" to each of the 156 counts of the indictments.
And so it is with political trials. There were a lot of those in the 60's: the Chicago Seven, Angela Davis, the Camden 28, Bobby Seale. None stuck; the convictions of the Chicago Seven were reversed on appeal, and Davis, the Camden 28, and Seale were acquitted. And, like the Panther 21, their acquittals were probably the result of jury nullification, the jury's repulsion at the government's use of the criminal law to press a political agenda.
There's an old saying that there are four boxes which protect our liberty: soap, ballot, jury, and cartridge. The Kettle Falls Five would certainly appreciate that.