The Kettle Falls Five marijuana collective has been reduced to three this week after one of the defendants in the federal criminal case cut an eleventh-hour plea deal with prosecutors.
Details of the plea agreement were sealed by U.S. District Judge Thomas Rice before the trial of the other defendants began Wednesday.
However, Jason Zucker will testify against the other members of what has been described as a family of medical marijuana patients living a quiet life in the forest outside of Kettle Falls, Washington.
A jury of seven women and six men has been chosen to decide whether Rhonda Lee Firestack-Harvey, along with her son Roland Gregg and his wife, Michelle, conspired to grow and distribute pot from her property. Prosecutors earlier this month dropped their case against Firestack-Harvey’s terminally ill 71-year-old husband, Larry Harvey. Zucker had been a family friend.
Prosecutors say the five operated a 100-plant outdoor grow operation between 2011 and 2012 that would have produced far more marijuana than the five could have smoked.
The case has earned attention as a barometer of the willingness of federal prosecutors to pursue marijuana cases in the wake of states legalizing the drug for medical reasons. Washington and Colorado have since legalized marijuana for recreational use.
Despite that underlying background, the defendants have been barred by Rice from telling jurors about their status as medical marijuana cardholders.
Instead, the case will adhere to whether federal laws outlawing marijuana were broken. Prosecutors plan to present evidence that the defendants kept business records – including payments to themselves. Those records also detail the hiring of people to trim and process the plants. Such evidence, according to prosecutors, shows that the family was operating outside of the state’s Medical Use of Cannabis Act, thus exposing them to prosecution under the federal Controlled Substances Act.
Defense attorney Phil Telfeyan told jurors that the case is about overzealous prosecution of a simple rural family that lives off the land.
He called Zucker a “turncoat” who buckled under intense pressure from family and prosecutors. Zucker is married and has a young child. He also has a prior felony conviction. If found guilty in the drug case, which included a firearms charge, Zucker faced a lengthy prison term under federal sentencing requirements.
The trial is expected to last about a week. Cannabis advocates have been protesting outside the federal courthouse in downtown Spokane this week, waving signs and using sidewalk chalk to draw attention to the trial.
During questioning of Stevens County Sheriff’s Sgt. Brad Manke, who spotted the third-of-an-acre marijuana garden from a helicopter in the summer of 2012, other law enforcement officers hauled in evidence bins and firearms and placed them in front of the jury.
The move upset defense attorneys and Judge Rice, who later said the placement of such evidence in front of the jury, before it had been admitted, could give jurors an unfair impression.
Rice noted he didn’t want the evidence, which includes bags of marijuana, to “stink up the courtroom.”