The federal prosecutor for eastern Washington State is seeking to imprison five people for at least 10 years for growing a few dozen medical marijuana plants.
Last year the Obama administration handed down guidelines allowing states to legalize weed for recreational or medical use. Voters in Washington have had MMJ since 1998 and voted to make recreational pot legal in 2012.
But U.S. Attorney Mike Ormsby is still aggressively pursuing federal charges against cultivators and sellers, charges critics say wouldn’t hold up under state law. Ormsby’s counterpart for the western part of the state has generally kept his hands off the medical pot industry.
“This case is another glaring example of what’s wrong with the federal policy on cannabis,” said Kari Boiter, Washington coordinator for Americans for Safe Access.
Lee Harvey, 70, an MMJ patient, along with three relatives and a family friend, each face a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison after police found 70 marijuana plants growing on their Stevens County farm.
Officers said they found guns on the property, and that’s why Ormsby’s office is seeking long sentences. Harvey and his co-defendants said the weapons were for hunting, but police said they were loaded and placed near a tub of weed.
Marijuana is legal under state law in Washington, but it’s entirely illegal under federal law. Federal always takes priority over state law.
The case is a glaring example of the differences in how some prosecutors interpret the guidelines from the Department of Justice. Those rules say states that legalize may move forward with their cannabis programs as long as they enforce eight federal priorities, such as preventing interstate trafficking.
As long as the states do this, the Justice Department and its agencies won’t interfere and won’t target patients, users, or businesses that obey state cannabis laws. A memo outlining these guidelines was released last August.
But federal prosecutors operate with a great deal of discretion, and the only way the president can effectively enforce his will on a rogue U.S. attorney is to fire him or her. That isn’t likely to happen over legal weed. So some prosecutors have continued to target legitimate pot providers despite the orders from Justice.
Growers like Harvey are common in Washington, and have been since MMJ was first introduced. They’re essentially ignored in the western part of the state, as are the quasi-legal dispensaries that sell medical weed to patients.
“Where commercial outlets are largely permitted in western Washington, the [U.S. attorney’s office] in eastern Washington is subjecting individual patients to mandatory minimum prison sentences for private cultivation,” Harvey’s defense attorneys wrote in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder.