Pictured is a group of defendants accused by federal prosecutors of growing marijuana in rural Washington state. Shown here from back left: Rhonda Lee Firestack-Harvey, Jason Zucker, Rolland Gregg and Michelle Gregg stand with Larry Harvey outside the Thomas S. Foley United States Courthouse on Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015, in Spokane, Wash. (Dan Pelle, The Spokesman-Review)

Federal trial starts for three ‘Kettle Falls’ Washington state pot growers

SPOKANE, Wash. — A federal court trial has begun for a group of people accused of growing marijuana three years ago near Kettle Falls in northeast Washington.

The group says it was medical marijuana for their own use. Prosecutors say they were growing more marijuana than they smoked.

The case is seen as a barometer of the willingness of federal prosecutors to pursue marijuana cases in a state that had medical-marijuana laws in place and has since legalized recreational marijuana, The Spokesman-Review reported Thursday.

As the trial began Wednesday, defense attorney Phil Telfeyan told jurors the case is about overzealous prosecution of a simple rural family.

The group was originally known as the Kettle Falls Five, but now there are only three defendants.

The jury will decide whether Rhonda Lee Firestack-Harvey, along with her son Roland Gregg and his wife, Michelle, conspired to grow and distribute pot.

Earlier this month prosecutors dropped their case against Firestack-Harvey’s terminally ill 71-year-old husband, Larry Harvey. Another defendant, Jason Zucker, made a plea deal and agreed to testify against the others.

A Stevens County sheriff’s sergeant spotted the one-third acre marijuana garden from a helicopter in the summer of 2012.

Although the defendants say they were medical marijuana users, U.S. District Judge Thomas Rice says the jury won’t hear that. Instead, the case will stick to whether federal laws outlawing marijuana were broken.

Prosecutors plan to present evidence that the defendants kept business records — including payments to themselves and hiring people to process the plants. Such evidence 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, prosecutors said.

Telfeyan called Zucker a “turncoat” who buckled under intense pressure from 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.

The trial is expected to last about a week. Marijuana advocates have been protesting outside the federal courthouse in downtown Spokane, waving signs and using sidewalk chalk to draw attention to the trial.

Information from: The Spokesman-Review