When it premiered at South By Southwest last March, Code of the West was an eye-opening, at times gripping, chronicle of Montana’s battle over medical marijuana—and a window into the high-stakes standoff between states that legalize it and a federal government devoted to the War on Drugs. After a pro-legalization voter initiative passed with strong bipartisan support in 2004, tens of thousands of Montana residents obtained medical marijuana cards and dispensaries cropped up with little regulation. The proliferation of pot paraphernalia led to hysteria; activists like Cherrie Brady, co-founder of a group called Safe Communities, Safe Kids, warned that the drug was seeping into schools and creating a whole generation of drug addicts—a claim with no basis in reality. Even as efforts were made to build upon and improve the law, in 2011, Republican Speaker of the House Mike Milburn—urging his colleagues to take back Montana’s “culture” from “hippies” and Colombians alike—introduced a bill to repeal it completely, much to the dismay of patients and providers who had strived to comply with state law for years.
Director Rebecca Richman Cohen takes viewers into the Montana state capitol over the course of the 2011 legislative season, as activists on both sides of the issue make their case. She introduces us to women like Lori Burnam, a grandmother with terminal cancer who prefers marijuana to pills with punishing side effects, and who occupies the film’s moral center. But the dramatic turning point occurs when federal agents raid a growhouse operated by Montana Cannabis, one of the largest providers in the state, and the business at the heart of the film. The Drug Enforcement Administration carried out the raid on March 14, 2011, at the very moment state senators were voting against repealing the law. One of twenty-six conducted throughout the state, the film shows how the raid reinvigorated the repeal effort and sparked backlash at the same time, spreading fear among growers and sellers, and, ultimately, helping to dismantle the medical marijuana business in Montana.
But the story doesn’t end there. Mere months after Code of the West premiered, a number of its protagonists were indicted on federal drug charges. The film’s main character, affable pro-legalization lobbyist and former managing partner of Montana Cannabis, Tom Daubert, pled guilty and was given five years probation. Another partner, Chris Lindsay, struck a deal as well. But their former partner, Chris Williams, refused to plead guilty to conduct that his own state did not consider criminal. (When viewers first meet Williams, he is chatting cordially with state authorities touring his operation; he vows to show them around whenever they wish. Later, he acknowledges the contradiction. “Even now, the DEA could come kick our door in and arrest us all.”) The federal Controlled Substances Act prohibited Williams from invoking the legality of the state law at the time of the raid, so the fact that he was in compliance with Montana law has no bearing on his fate. Today, Williams, who has a teenage son, faces a mandatory minimum sentence of more than 80 years in prison.