Patient Story: Rolland Gregg
In spite of Congress’s recent rebuke to the Department of Justice for using federal funds to target state-compliant patients and businesses, Rolland Gregg of the Kettle Falls Five still faces 20 years in prison for growing medical marijuana with his family. This is his story.
“I was going into a back flip, but I over-rotated, and was ‘rolling down the windows’ as they say, when you’re out of balance in the air.”
Rolland Gregg, sustainable energy tech entrepreneur and erstwhile member of the media-dubbed ‘Kettle Falls Five,’ is talking about the accident that broke his back.
He was at the time a 17 year-old “semi-sponsored” snowboarder for Ride with his sights on competing in a Dragon Series event with “Big air, quarter- and half-pipes.”
A bit of a wunderkind (straight-A’s, varsity sports, math club, a well-padded social life) and self-confessed “science geek,” Rolland had plowed through most of his high school credits before junior year and was spending his uncluttered days with pals in the backcountry of Steven’s Pass building jumps and practicing tricks.
It was wet on the day of the accident; he was fast on the snow, got too much air, then over-shot the jump and crashed hard on the transition.
“I don’t remember hitting, and I didn’t feel the pain,” he says of the fall that shattered his helmet and violently compressed the thoracic vertebrae of his spine. “I remember leaving my body and seeing it from above like a ragdoll down on the slope.”
What followed in that moment of radical dissociation was, in Rolland’s words, “An intelligent conversation with some kind of energy, separate from myself.”
He was ‘told,’ – “I would have a thought that was immediately answered” – that he’d been using his allotted time on the planet “frivolously,” and that there was more to do with his life and talents.
“It was a shock because I thought I was respectful,” he says. “But I was doing things to show off, instead of following a grander purpose.”
After several days of “coming in and out of my body” – and a comatose state – Rolland woke to doctors telling him that he might not walk again. He was fitted with a cast that ran from chin to belt-line and confined to a wheelchair for several months.
He was also prescribed some heavy duty opiates and anodynes – Hydrocodone for the milder pain and Oxycontin for the really bad days – that left him with stomach aches and feeling “spacey and unable to think or focus – not like myself.”
A year of physical therapy brought full rehabilitation, but he scrapped his plans to take a few gap years to travel the world as a professional snowboarder, and went straight into college to prep for medical school.
It follows a kind of mythic arc: the jump and fall, the otherworldly epiphany, and dramatic about-face. In any other story it might serve as a one-off wake up call orchestrated by the Fates to sideswipe an otherwise reluctant hero onto his path. But for Rolland Gregg, now 33, it was just the beginning: a prelude to more fateful leaps, hairpin transitions, and windfalls precipitated by a curiosity that some – depending on their private interests and public politics – might consider dangerous.
“My initial focus was water,” says Rolland of the inception of his sustainable tech company, Native Clean Energy. “It’s an amazing mystery. It expands when cooled, has the ability to take on forms, to mimic things.”
Rolland’s delivery is rapid-fire but patient; He riffs on science and metaphysics in a way that is both conceptually lofty and canny, an autodidact’s blend of obsessive granularity and intuition. He says he taught himself how to speed-read as a kid and developed a photographic memory to “file things away in my mind.”
In a meeting, over the course of several hours, Rolland talks without pause, and it becomes easy to believe that he has somehow absorbed a surfeit of information, tagged and logged it en masse, and is now plucking it from his brain-pan at will. The stories, the theories, the titles, the numbers, the stats, the visions, the language, all seem instantly, biologically available.
Rolland’s interests eventually led him to a producer of ‘structured water,’ or water that has gone through a process to refine its molecular structure, which some believe has health benefits. It was around this time in 2009 that he met Paul Reynolds and Declan Owens, two Irish expats and engineers who had ventured into the world of nutritional supplements.
They teamed up to pursue Rolland’s vision to research and develop a variety of renewable energy technologies. A year later they had created “strategic alliances with people in the alternative energy movement,” and Native Clean Energy was born.
“It was me going out and finding technologies – vetting, replicating, and testing them over and over again,” says Rolland.
Among these alliances was a partnership with Daniel Nunez, a leading researcher of the “vortex resonance coil,” based on the science of the Tesla coil, that has, in Rolland’s words, “unique properties in energy efficiency, and is able to amplify energy.”
In the simplest terms: You put some energy in, and get more out.
It was while manning a booth at the 2013 Breakthrough Energy Conference in Colorado, where Nunez was speaking on the technology of the vortex coil, that Rolland met his next partner, Marc Cuthbert, a sandy-haired English scientist cum pilot cum maritime explorer then based out of Arizona. Mark happened, while walking past Rolland’s booth, to be talking to a colleague about a scientist Rolland was particularly interested in finding.
“There are no coincidences” they both remark separately, in regards to their kismet-y meeting. Five months later, Marc officially joined Rolland, Declan, and Paul as a partner in NCE.
“We incubate technologies we think are valuable,” says Rolland, “and prepare them for commercialization in the market.”
Their office is a two-story loft in Seattle’s Central District with winding café stairs, an open lab, and replete with all the utilitarian disarray of an all-guy techie start-up. On wall-to-wall whiteboards above Rolland’s desk is a dizzying lineup of projects that on any given day comprise a kind of super-heated to do list.
“We are the hub, or the Mother Company, and create spin-off companies from the inventors and technologies we partner with,” is how Rolland describes NCE’s myriad ventures. “We now travel the world partnering with people who have already made successes in certain areas of renewable energy and help them get to the next stage.”
Amongst these is a “crystal cell battery” that is, well, inexhaustible, according to Rolland. “This is a battery that never dies,” he says. “It’s actually an energy source – an energy pump from the environment around it.”
That’s one – a battery that never dies. Another is the culmination of a new field of fluid dynamics called Parafluidics, meant to “turn what is usually wasted energy in the way of heat and noise and vibration into flow.”
All of the above – Parafluidics, the battery, and the vortex coil – comprise only a small taste of a vast energy technology utopia currently being fostered, says Rolland and his associates at NCE, by path-making scientist wizards in labs all over the world.
To wit: They’ve partnered with Langenberg Technologies, run by a German prince (Look it up – Prince Max Langenberg) stationed in Eugene, Oregon who has engineered a process that, according to Roland, will simultaneously “clean up” and create power from water.
Oh, and there’s also an aquaponics project, which uses fish waste for farming, and an alt-Vegas, eco-friendly edutainment resort or “off-the grid Transformational Festival Village” in the works for the deserts of Nevada.
The grand vision?
“Communities that can sustain themselves,” says Rolland without a beat. “One community does not need 15 other communities to provide for it.”
Rolland is aware that his vision, like the company’s nascent technologies and more metaphysical leanings, can sound a little groovy and out-there for some, but is quick to moot any notion that the company is founded on the atavistic lure of recycled 60’s idealism.
“We don’t have to give anything up,” he says confidently. “We can have our amenities. We don’t have to live meagerly, like smelly hippies.”
Rolland’s desire to transform the world, and his faith in NCE’s ability to do so, might have roots beyond the pulled-back-from-the-brink revelation he received during his accident.
Shortly after his birth in Juneau, Alaska, Rolland’s family moved to Yakutat, a fishing village on the Situk River and home to the Native American Tlingit tribe. His mother Rhonda Firestack was Tlingit, and after his parents divorced when he was two, Rolland shuttled between his father’s home on Camano Island, WA, and his mother’s tribe in Yakutat, Alaska.
His summers were spent taking part in what he describes as an earth-based “subsistence” culture.
“We did set net fishing and crabbing. In the spring we’d gather up all the seaweed, lay it on rocks to dry and put it in the freezer. I’d help smoke and fillet the fish, do all the traditional things – make squaw candy, pick berries and make jam; we canned everything for the winter.”
He also absorbed the tribe’s deep-rooted code of social capital and connection.
“If somebody needed firewood you’d go cut it. If someone needed food you’d go fishing for them. It’s really basic. We took care of everybody. Nobody was left out.”
Rolland observed that the land was abundant, but energy was expensive: “The whole town is landlocked and water-locked, so it basically runs off of two diesel generators, which end up costing about 55 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity,” and says that the government’s attempts to address the village’s soaring financial and environmental costs were perfunctory at best:
“They would do these studies on renewable energy. Every year, more studies and more studies. That was really the nexus of my interest in sustainable energy. Why are you spending 50 million on these studies when you could have spent 10 million on researching and developing a new system that would provide power and renewable energy? We’d already be paying 10-15 cents per kilowatt hour.”
After his snowboarding accident, Rolland won a scholarship through his tribe to go to the University of Washington to study biochemistry, with the intent of eventually going to medical school.
“As a child I wanted to be able to heal the planet, to heal people,” he says, “And I was told that that’s what doctors do.”
But hip-deep into his studies, Rolland realized that institutionalized medicine might not be his calling. The accident had spurred an interest in alternative medicine; He had become a personal trainer, studied nutrition, the immune system. His more holistic approach was at odds with what he calls “allopathic doctrine,” which he believes has been coopted by pharmaceutical companies.
“They are running the medical schools. They want people to be sick their entire lives, and get hooked on pills and have expensive medical procedures. I looked at these things and what they supported. Continuing with the program and changing it from the inside out would mean bending my own ethics.”
So he gave up the scholarship and left.
What followed was a deep dive ideals detour into corporate America that culminated in Rolland managing the North American division of General Motors’ online marketing arm and learning the minutiae of how to ‘sell the dream’ to various regional markets.
“I realized we were using fear to create an empty space in people that we would fill with product. And it was really successful: We were manipulating people into buying things they didn’t really need. I saw this, and thought, ‘I’m just part of the system. I’m making it worse.’”
He was also nursing a lot of pain from his now arthritic spine – a holdover from the accident, and the universal scourge of the desk job – and treating it with painkillers that made him dopey. His roommate turned him on to cannabis as an analgesic, and he discovered that it allowed him to be pain-free and relatively present.
“I would make some cannabis tea, or vaporize – which is really easy and clean. I could have an indica in the evening, which knocks you out…You need to sleep because that’s a restorative time. I chose cannabis because it worked, and there were no negative effects.”
Rolland investigated cannabis as a medicine, from its pre-prohibition tenure in the American pharmacopoeia to current cancer research, but ultimately relied on his own felt experience to guide him.
“After breaking my back, going through rehabilitation, and studying the body, I learned that it’s not a machine you can just tweak with chemicals.
There are a lot of aspects to the body not in allopathic medicine’s toolbox. Taking the leap from traditional medicine to cannabis was a natural progression. If you can grow your own medicine – that’s pretty amazing.”
“I watched Who Killed the Electric Car?” Rolland says. “And realized it was the company I was working for.”
Rolland experienced a general dismantling of his childhood beliefs:
“When I was younger I thought that doctors were good people who wanted to do good. I thought the government wanted to protect you. I thought the military was there to kill the bad guys, and I thought pharmaceutical companies were there to give us good things for our health. And as I experienced my life, all of these bubbles were burst. I lost trust. I started to see through all the veils.”
Rolland took an inventory: The big job, the six-figure income, the house, the motorcycle, the Audi s4, his future wife Michelle.
“I had everything I needed. I should be really happy, but I wasn’t. What was I going to do next year? Go buy a bigger house? I had lost my ideals in the pursuit of making money.”
So he ditched it: The job, the digs, the toys. At 26 Rolland liquidated his life and cashed in his 401K. His fiancée Michelle, then a project manager at Talking Rain, was on board with the adventure; she would quit her job and go with him. The plan? Go live on a converted bus on his parents’ property in Eastern Washington and figure out the next step.
“I spent time digging into each subject,” Rolland says of his time on his folks’ RV in the wilds of eastern Washington.
“I was reading historical memoirs, looking for whistle blowers, looking at reality from all these different perspectives, sifting through the history of science, religion, war, law, commerce, media, money, education, medicine, transportation, and agriculture – and I saw all the manipulation.”
He outfitted the camper with wifi, and spent the next three months with Michelle reading, watching documentaries, making trips around the country to talk with scientists about emergent technology, and recovering a sense of mission.
“I had always been compassionate and respectful of other belief systems, but was largely a-political, a-religious, without an opinion. On that bus, my ideals were formed.”
Along with a more fully realized vision of what would ultimately become Native Clean Energy:
“I was learning a lot about clean technology, and I wanted to help indigenous communities be part of the movement of bringing sustainability into the world so they would be its stewards, because they’re the ones who really know about sustainability.”
A friend of his eventually called with an offer he couldn’t refuse: She had five just-off-the-beach acres of property a half hour north of Zihuatanejo, Mexico. If he and Michelle would build her a place, they could build one of their own, and have an acre of property to play with.
“My idea was to create an eco-resort. I thought I could build 4 or 5 little 100% sustainable bungalows where people could experience living completely off the grid with the same amenities. They could see that it was possible to not give up their lifestyle while also being symbiotic with the environment.”
That was the dream. He and Michelle went back home to Seattle to get married and then invested a year and a healthy chunk of their savings in the Mexico property before a fall out with his friend soured the deal.
“We just had to walk away. I returned to the States in 2009 and started Native Clean Energy.”
Presently, Rolland Gregg is not as well known for developing cutting edge energy solutions as he is for being part of “The Kettle Falls Five,” whose members were recently indicted on five federal charges related to growing state-legal medical marijuana in eastern Washington. The group is comprised of Rolland and his wife Michelle, his mother Rhonda Firestack Harvey, her husband, Larry Harvey, and family friend Jason Zucker.
Located in the far northeastern corner of WA, the property the family designated for the grow originally served as hunting land for Rolland’s stepfather Larry, now 71, who visited it for several seasons until his retirement from a 30-year career in long haul trucking. It’s a ways from the nearest town, roughly 10 miles to Colville, but Rhonda created a little plot to grow her own fruits and vegetables, and between Larry’s hunting and Rhonda’s garden, it was a peaceful, if remote place – high mountains, thick forests, lots of wildlife, – to call home. They converted a bus into a camper and lived in it while the house was being built.
Rhonda, 56, had undergone several surgeries for osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome, and Larry suffered from gout and chronic inflammation. Based on his own experience, and noting the glut of pharmaceuticals in Rhonda and Larry’s medicine cabinet, Rolland suggested cannabis to them as an alternative painkiller. Soon after, Rhonda and Larry got their medical recommendations and began experimenting with edibles and infusions from local dispensaries.
Though considered a more conservative enclave, it wasn’t difficult for the Harveys to find legal cannabis in eastern Washington. A casual Googling for ‘medical marijuana dispensaries’ in Spokane, about a 90-minute drive from Colville, yields over 20 storefronts and a handful of “Delivery Services.”
Rhonda and Larry found cannabis more effective in treating their pain and inflammation, but it was expensive. Around this time Rolland met Jason Zucker, who had experience with cultivation. He offered to set up and maintain a garden on the Harvey property, and Rolland looked into the laws for growing.
Washington allows medical marijuana patients to possess more cannabis than most, a “60 day supply,” which was officially defined in 2008 as 24 ounces of processed marijuana “and/or 15 plants” if you were growing your own.
It all looked good and was aligned with Rolland’s ethos: a non-toxic, self-sustaining, environmentally sound medicine grown in a spirit of communalism for a fraction of what pharmaceutical companies would charge for their drugs. And it worked; for Rolland cannabis meant being pain free and relaxed, but not completely hazed:
“I [was dealing] with chemicals and electricity and all kinds of high tech and sometimes dangerous stuff [at NCE]. Yet, cannabis didn’t cause me to hurt myself. We published a book on virtual particles and electromagnetism, which required a lot of intellectual thinking and analysis – but I could still use cannabis and do that.”
The family planted the garden in the late spring of 2011 on a rise at the top of the property. For good measure, they also created a 4 X 8 foot sign painted with a big green cross – the symbol for medical marijuana – and pasted with copies of their medical marijuana recommendations to alert state aerial surveillance that theirs was a legal grow.
Unbeknownst to them, an amendment was made to medical law soon after their cannabis seeds were in the ground: The “collective garden model,” which still allowed 15 plants per patient, but imposed a new maximum of 45 plants per garden or “collective,” was put into effect on July 22nd, 2011.
In spite of Obama’s 2008 campaign promise to honor state law regarding medical marijuana, he re-nominated the virulently anti-pot Michele Leonhart to head the DEA in 2010. The agency produced a paper in January 2011 strongly disputing the medicinal value of cannabis, and soon thereafter a spate of raids began in Oakland, CA that eventually spread to Washington State.
At that time there were more than 50 dispensaries operating in Spokane alone, until a widespread crackdown spearheaded by Washington’s U.S. attorney Mike Ormsby compelled many dispensary owners to close up shop. Those still standing were raided, their plants, patient records, and cash seized by federal agents.
Rolland, absorbed with gaining momentum for Native Clean Energy, and Rhonda and Larry, ensconced in the wilderness of eastern WA, have repeatedly stated that they believed that they were in strict compliance with state law.
In early August 2012, after two flybys by the Civil Air Patrol, the grow and the Harvey family home were raided twice by first state and then federal law enforcement officers. 29 plants were taken during the first raid to make the garden compliant with the new “collective model” maximum of 45 plants. The remaining plants were seized during the second raid along with some raw cannabis, a few edibles from Rhonda’s freezer, their Saturn Vue, a motorcycle, the guns Larry used to hunt, and $700 in petty cash.
Six months later, on February 2, 2013, there was a third raid, this one involving three SWAT teams sent to the Harvey, Gregg, and Zucker homes respectively to arrest Larry and Rhonda, Rolland and Michelle, and Jason.
Rolland was in Alaska with Rhonda at the time. When he heard that Larry had been arrested he offered to drive the four hours to Spokane to turn himself in. But upon his return to the mainland, Rolland was arrested outside the Kirkland home he shared with Michelle. Larry was held in an Eastern Washington jail without access to his medicine for more than 2 weeks, which exacerbated his gout and left him with a permanently disfigured foot. When he left his cell 17 days later, he was unable to walk.
The family and Zucker were ultimately indicted on 5 federal charges each including manufacturing, possession and distribution of marijuana, maintaining a drug-involved premise, and the possession of a firearm in furtherance of an intent to distribute.
Tagged as “The Kettle Falls Five” by the press, Rolland, Michelle, Rhonda, Larry and Jason were forced to sit in legal limbo while federal prosecutors prepared their case.
The trial garnered both state and national media attention and raised the ire of cannabis activists and patients across the country – many of whom invoked the directive of the 2009 Ogden Memo. Considered a watershed moment for legal cannabis, and penned by then Deputy Attorney General David Ogden, the memo advised federal law enforcement officials to not waste their resources targeting medical marijuana patients who were in “clear compliance with existing state law,” and to focus instead on traffickers engaged in criminal acts, such as money-laundering, interstate traffic, or selling to minors.
In addition, there was no small amount of head shaking about why – in a part of the state with a number of flourishing retail cannabusinesses, and where sales of marijuana have recently surpassed the $2 million mark – this family of compliant medical patients with a small-scale personal-use grow, would merit the full force of federal prosecutorial power.
Larry Harvey was eventually released from charges after being diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer, and Jason Zucker accepted a plea deal that would potentially reduce his prison time to 16 months. The remaining three members of the Kettle Falls Five, Rhonda, Rolland and Michelle, were ultimately brought to trial in a federal court in Spokane over 2 years, and $2 million in tax payer dollars later.
While president Obama explicitly directed federal prosecutors to consider appropriate medical use when making criminal charging decisions in such cases, The US Attorney in eastern Washington, Mike Ormsby requested that the judge not allow the admission that all five defendants were card-carrying medical marijuana patients into evidence. His reasoning? Marijuana was still federally illegal and categorized as a Schedule 1 drug with “no currently accepted medical use.”
The purpose for growing the plant, Ormsby argued, was immaterial; all that mattered was that a federal law had been broken. The judge, Thomas O. Rice, complied.
Rolland wore a green ribbon during the trial in support of his dying stepfather’s use of medical marijuana and was told by the judge that he and others were not allowed to wear or display any symbols of patient solidarity.
“The judge literally said, ‘You do not have a first amendment right in this courtroom,’” says Rolland. “But people kept coming in with medical marijuana T-shirts and ribbons who hadn’t heard the order. He would make them take it off and he would have to excuse the jury.”
On March 3rd the group was acquitted on 4 out of the 5 charges. Earl Hicks, one of the assistant U.S attorneys who prosecuted the case, immediately filed a motion to have Rolland, Rhonda and Michelle detained until sentencing, even though Rhonda now serves as Larry’s primary caregiver. The motion was ultimately denied. As of this writing, Rolland and his family await sentencing for the last charge, that of “manufacturing 50-99 plants,” on June 10th. They face up to 20 years in prison.
At heart, Rolland is obsessed with systems; He is deeply compelled to diagnose, disassemble and rebuild structures from the ground up. But he and his family are now caught in a system that could take him out of the world, and his mission, for months or years.
His reflection on his situation is nuanced – a mix of scrappiness and surrender.
“Buckminster Fuller said, ‘don’t fight the system, just build a new one people will follow.’ I think part of what I manifested in my life was a fight with the federal government because I was so angry at the absurdity that they would try to keep medicine away from people – medicine that cured cancer. Why would they do that?
“We didn’t get a full acquittal; we have this little manufacturing charge left for a reason. It’s not just for us – it’s for the rest of the people. I was actually sad when I thought we might get a full acquittal because we wouldn’t have a chance to set a precedent and go to the ninth circuit and the Supreme Court and force the courts to interpret the federal/state difference in these laws.”
He then pauses and reconsiders his earlier statement.
“Yeah, I’m caught in a system,” he says. “But I truly believe there’s a purpose to that. I don’t believe in coincidences. I’m here for a reason, and I accept that. You have to be within a system to navigate and transform it.”