SPOKANE — A federal judge on Thursday declined to dismiss marijuana charges against the so-called Kettle Falls Five in a case that has drawn national attention.
The decision by U.S. District Court Judge Thomas O. Rice cleared the way for a trial scheduled to begin Feb. 23 in Spokane.
The federal marijuana case has drawn wide attention in a state where the recreational use of pot is legal, and among marijuana advocates across the nation.
Federal authorities contend the five violated Washington’s medical marijuana laws when drug agents seized 75 marijuana plants, guns and business records from a rural property near the town of Kettle Falls in August 2012.
But defense attorneys contended that Congress recently passed a budget bill that included a provision banning federal funds from being used to prevent states from implementing their own laws on medical marijuana.
Rice said that provision did not apply in this case.
“The United States has proffered evidence to demonstrate the defendants were operating a for-profit marijuana business,” Rice wrote in his decision.
Earlier Thursday, attorneys for both sides argued before Rice on whether the case should proceed.
“These defendants are innocent of all charges,” defense attorney Phil Telfeyan of Washington, D.C., told the judge.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Earl Hicks said the growing operation of the Kettle Falls Five far exceeded what they needed for their own medical marijuana use, and amounted to an illegal for-profit enterprise.
“Is this really medical marijuana, or a sales operation?” Hicks said.
The defendants are married couple Larry Harvey and Rhonda Lee Firestack-Harvey; her son and daughter-in-law Rolland Gregg and Michelle Gregg; and family friend Jason Lee Zucker. All contend they have medical cards from doctors to use marijuana for the treatment of different medical conditions.
Larry Harvey, 71, was recently diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer and was in court Thursday in a wheelchair.
In court filings, the defendants contended their prosecution threatened the future of the medical marijuana system in Washington state.
“Prosecuting persons who may be operating in compliance with state medical marijuana laws prevents states from implementing their own laws,” defense attorney Robert Fischer wrote.
He contended that state law is undermined by discouraging lawful patients from accessing medical marijuana because of the threat of federal prosecution.
Hicks said the facts show a different picture.
“It appears from a review of all these records that the defendants possessed more than 72 ounces at one time and that they sold some of this marijuana to people who were not part of any collective garden,” Hicks wrote in a court filing.
State law forbids sales of marijuana to anyone outside a collective garden once it is established, and limits the amount each member can grow, Hicks wrote.
“The United States was asked to participate in this case by state law enforcement officials,” Hicks told the judge. “The United States has every right to go forward.”
The case is not tied to Washington’s recent legalization of recreational marijuana use, but marijuana advocates have said they are worried by the prosecution.
The motion to dismiss the charges comes two months after President Barack Obama signed the so-called “Cromnibus” spending bill, which included a rider that prohibited Department of Justice funds from being spent to block implementation of state medical marijuana laws.
In August 2012, agents for the Drug Enforcement Administration raided the Harvey property. The five were charged with conspiracy to manufacture and distribute marijuana, manufacture and distribution of marijuana, maintaining a drug-involved premises, and possession of firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime.
If convicted, each defendant faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison.