Williams verdict leads to different views about the future of MT medical marijuana

Former Montana Cannabis owner Chris Williams now awaits sentencing. A jury convicted the medical marijuana provider on eight drug-trafficking and firearms charges.

Williams says he is appealing the charges.

Of the eight guilty verdicts, four of those facing Chris Williams are felony charges involving cultivation and distribution of marijuana. Williams’ case is the only one to go to trial in the wake of federal government raids on 26 medical marijuana providers in the spring of 2011.

Most of those indicted ended up taking plea deals. This includes the three other men who owned Montana Cannabis with Williams. These plea deals were taken because defendants didn’t believe they could win their cases by saying they were following state law.

Williams did decide to try that defense. But U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen did not even allow it to be admitted.

Regardless of state law, marijuana is still illegal federally.

“You know, there was an assumption by these growing operations that they could somehow circumvent the law and get away with it and it just didn’t happen, it’s not happening,” said Republican Speaker of the Montana House of Representatives Mike Milburn.

Milburn has been an advocate of full repeal of Montana’s medical marijuana provisions. He says the Williams case proves how courts view Montana law stacked up to Federal law.

The 2011 Legislature passed new medical marijuana provisions which significantly restricted those passed by voters in 2004. The 2011 bill ended the marijuana industry that had sprung up to serve patients and curtailed how people can qualify for or access the drug.The number of registered cardholders has plummeted since then. Milburn thinks that’s a positive trend, but with the current state of federal law, he still wants full repeal.

“We shouldn’t even be dealing with this, there’s a law in place right now and it’s illegal to grow or use or manufacture or distribute marijuana,” Milburn said.

Helena-area resident Bob Brigham is a spokesman for Montana First, a medical marijuana advocacy organization. He says Williams made a courageous decision in taking the case to trial. He faults Judge Christensen for not admitting Williams’ defense, calling the whole situation entrapment. He thinks the verdicts are a waste.

“It’s a giant waste of everybody’s time and money to be trying to lock somebody up for growing some marijuana for sick patients. It’s ridiculous,” Brigham said.

And Williams may get locked up for decades. The case doesn’t bode well for the two people left who have not made plea deals with the government following the federal investigation–Lisa Flemming and former University of Montana Quarterback, Jason Washington.

Montana First spokesman Bob Brigham does not believe the Williams case hurts the overall medical marijuana effort.

“People are realizing that there’s not going to be a judicial decision that is going to save the day,” Brigham said.

He says it’s going to require a political decision, even if it needs to go all the way up to the federal level.

The medical marijuana reform passed by lawmakers has been placed on the ballot this November as IR-124. A vote for it upholds the legislature’s reform. Voting against it reverts the state back to the original medical marijuana law passed in ’04.

Chris William’s sentencing has been set for January 4th. He says he is appealing his case to the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals.

-The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Marijuana advocates moving on after MT Supreme Court reverses injunction on SB 423

Proponents of medical marijuana reform passed by the state legislature are regrouping. This after the Montana Supreme Court reversed a lower court injunction blocking part of the reform this week. The reform bill still will go before voters this November.

The 2011 medical marijuana reform bill was passed by state Legislators as Senate Bill 423. It dramatically restricted use of the substance from the rules in the medical marijuana initiative passed by voters in 2004. Lawmakers were seeking to reign-in the number of people registering to use marijuana and shut down the burgeoning industry that accompanied it.

But, the Montana Cannabis Industry Association was quick to file suit against the law and District Judge Jim Reynolds last year blocked several parts of it from taking effect, saying it violated patients’ and providers’ constitutional rights to privacy and to pursue employment and health.

The Supreme Court reversed Reynolds injunctions this week. Billings Republican State Senator Jeff Essman Sponsored the reform bill in the legislature. He’s glad to see Judge Reynolds decisions struck down.

“Which, basically, as the Supreme Court found would have elevated access to medical marijuana to constitutional status,” Essman said.

The Supreme court does say an individual has a fundamental right to obtain and reject medical treatment. But, they also say, this right does not extend to give a patient a fundamental right to use any drug, regardless of its legality. Marijuana is still illegal federally.

Former marijuana lobbyist Tom Daubert just received five years probation for his role in a medical marijuana growing operation. He still describes the marijuana reform bill as repeal in disguise. He largely dismisses the high court’s ruling.

 “The Supreme Court didn’t judge the merits of the current law except regards constitutionality. They didn’t say it was a good law,” Daubert said.

Enough signatures were gathered to put the marijuana reform bill up to a public vote in November as IR-124. Daubert says more or less what the Supreme Court has done is put the issue squarely back in the laps of voters.

“Which I think is where it belongs, it was voters who made a compassionate decision, a smart decision 8 years ago,” Daubert said.

Voters will have the option to reject the law, but State Senator Jeff Essman predicts they won’t.

“We took important first steps to get a situation that was widely regarded as out of control under control,” he said.

However the vote for IR-124 comes out, Essman predicts the legislature will be taking up the issue again next session.

Meanwhile, Supreme Court Justices sent the case back to District Judge Reynolds with orders to review it under a less-strict standard.

Number of medical marijuana cardholders rises for first time since passage of reform bill

The number of registered medical marijuana cardholders in Montana has increased for the first time since state lawmakers passed legislation reforming the legal use of the substance last year. Legal enrolled patients rose to 8,844 in July.

But Quality Assurance Division Deputy Administrator in the State Department of Public Health and Human Services Roy Kemp says it’s only a modest uptick of 163 patients from June.

“The numbers of new patients coming on has been concealed by the avalanche of people leaving. There have been new patients that have come on every month of the last year as well as people who have renewed. otherwise we would not be at 8,000-plus individuals,” Kemp said.

The number of registered cardholders reached its peak in May of last year—coming in at more than 30-thousand people enrolled before reform went into effect.

Speaker of the House, Cascade Republican Representative Mike Milburn originally wanted full repeal of Montana’s medical marijuana law, although he did eventually vote for the reform bill now in place. Milburn thinks the current figure of over 8-thousand cardholders is still too high.

“These aren’t medical marijuana users. These are recreational users. Very very few people in Montana had expressed a desire or a need or expressed results from Marijuana medically,” Milburn said.

Voters will decide whether they want to keep the reform bill passed by the legislature this November. Medical marijuana advocate Bob Brigham acts as spokesman for a group working to overturn the reform.

Brigham believes most of the more than 20-thousand people no longer on the registry have now turned to the black market.

“For the vast majority of people, you won’t be able to legally get marijuana. There’s no way to buy a plant, there’s no way to buy seeds to grow your own. You can’t buy marijuana anywhere. And so, the system’s completely crumbled and it has bottomed out,” Brigham said.

The state’s medical marijuana reform law goes before voters this November as IR-124. A vote for the measure keeps the reform in place. Voting against IR-124 reverts Montana to old marijuana provisions passed by voters in 2004.

Marijuana is still listed as an illegal drug at the federal level.

Sally Mauk talks with filmmaker Rebecca Richman Cohen about Montana’s medical marijuana debate..

Rebecca Richman Cohen

Boston-based filmmaker Rebecca Richman Cohen’s latest documentary follows the debate last year in the Montana legislature over whether to reform or repeal Montana’s medical marijuana law, passed by voters in 2004. “Code of the West” looks at the enormous growth in the medical marijuana industry, and the backlash against it. In this feature interview, Cohen talks with News Director Sally Mauk about why she wanted to do the film – and what she hopes audiences take away from it….