A Washington man whose arrest on marijuana charges led to a landmark jury verdict earlier this year has died.
Lee Harvey was 71. He died of cancer-related causes in a hospital in Colville, Wash.
Harvey was arrested three years ago, along with his wife, son, daughter-in-law, and friend, after police found roughly 70 cannabis plants growing at Harvey’s home. Harvey used the medical marijuana to treat symptoms related to his cancer, as well as chronic pain caused by gout.
Federal prosecutors threatened Harvey and his family with prison terms of up to 10 years each, even though they were growing under Washington’s legal medical cannabis program. Prosecutors insisted the Harvey family had too many plants, making them guilty of federal felonies.
The court system eventually disagreed. After a grueling trial, postponed at least once after Harvey was rushed to the hospital mid-hearing, prosecutors saw the political writing on the wall and dropped the charges against him. But they insisted on pursuing convictions for the other four.
Landmark court ruling
The family friend reached a separate plea deal, but Harvey’s relatives all went to trial. Their prosecution ended in a round of not-guilty verdicts, the first of their kind in American legal history.
Until that point, it was unheard of for a federal jury to reject charges against a medical marijuana patient. The first such verdict at the state level happened just weeks before the Harveys were acquitted.
Medical cannabis advocates have hailed Harvey and his family as heroes of the reform movement. They faced immense pressure to plead guilty in exchange for lesser punishments, but they refused.
Harvey suffered through trial
The trial was an ordeal for Harvey, who was already dying of pancreatic cancer when it began. The judge forebade him and his lawyers from explaining that he was an MMJ patient entitled to grow under Washington State law.
At one point, Harvey collapsed during a hearing and was hospitalized. His lawyers were not even allowed to tell the jury he was dying of cancer, let alone that the had a legal right to grow medicinal marijuana.
Harvey played a critical role in recent developments in Congress. His case helped prod lawmakers to pass laws that now protect patients and providers in states where MMJ is legal. The charges against Harvey were dropped largely because of those laws, which undercut prosecutors’ ability to try him.
The decision to continue the trial against the other family members drew heated outrage. The verdict was widely viewed as an act of “jury nullification,” an exercise in which jurors acquit a defendant in order to send a message to the government about its policies. Nullification is technically prohibited, but juries have wide power to use it anyway.
Kari Boiter, herself a Washington medical marijuana patient, traveled with Harvey to Washington, D.C., as the legislation was being debated. Boiter remembered Harvey as a fighter.
“I think people are really sad that he’s gone, because they all drew a lot of hope and courage from the way he stood up for his beliefs,” she said. “At the same time, they’re honoring the sacrifices that he made.”