Montana Medical Marijuana Grower Will Receive A Minimum Sentence Of Five Years

Chris Williams, interviewed in "Code of the West."

Chris Williams, a medical marijuana grower from Montana, faces at least five years in federal prison after being caught up in a March 2011 federal raid on 26 dispensaries throughout the state. Montana voters passed an initiative in 2004 allowing distribution for medical needs, but marijuana remains illegal under federal law. Due to previous policies announced by the Obama Administration that federal resources would not focus on individuals operating within state law, Williams and his associates believed their medical marijuana business, “Montana Cannabis,” was in the legal clear. But after complaints from local citizens who could see marijuana plants being grown in greenhouses, the federal government decided to crack down.

Though Williams reportedly never handled them himself, several firearms were also found during the raid on Montana Cannabis. Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Taggard reasoned the weapons were used to protect the business’ operation — though Williams’ lawyer, Michael Donahoe, said they were the individual possessions of the other employees — and as a result charges of possessing a firearm in the furtherance of drug trafficking were added to the initial drug trafficking charges. The combined effect brought the total mandatory minimum sentence Williams was facing to over 80 years.

Eventually, the government proposed a deal reducing Williams’ minimum to 10 years in exchange for waiving his right to appeal. Williams initially refused the offer. But when a new deal was put forward in December of 2012, reducing the minimum to 5 years, Williams relented. He said his primary concern was for his 16-year-old son, a freshman at Montana State University: The new minimum holds out at least the possibility that Williams will be out of jail in time to attend his son’s college graduation.

Williams and his associates — Tom Daubert, Chris Lindsey, and Richard Flor — envisioned Montana Cannabis as a “gold standard” for medical marijuana dispensaries, and regularly gave tours to local and state politicians and law enforcement officials. Daubert, who has advocated for medical marijuana reform for years, was interviewed by ThinkProgress in October 2012 about his experiences. He and Lindsey both accepted plea deals to reduce their sentences, and had to testify against Williams at his trial as part of their agreements with prosecutors.

The 68-year-old Flor, who suffered from multiple medical problems including dementia and depression, was sentenced to five years in prison. He died in custody this past August.

Of all the people caught up in the March 2011 federal crackdown, Williams is the only one who took his case all the way to trial. In a letter to the Helena Independent Record, Williams wrote that his initial refusal to take a plea deal was a matter of principle. “I have decided to fight the federal government, because for me not defending the things that I know are right is dishonorable,” the letter read in part. “Every citizen has a responsibility to fight for what is right, even if it seems like the struggle will be lost.

Tom Daubert was one of the subjects of an award-winning documentary, “Code of the West,” and the filmmakers also shot a mini-documentary on Williams’ story for The New York Times.

An online petition was started for the White House to grant Chris Williams a full pardon. It met its December 12 deadline, garnering the 25,000 signatures needed for a response from the Obama Administration. As of November last year, President Obama had pardoned 22 people and given one commutation — a smaller total than any president since John Adams.

(Hat tip to Reason’s Jacob Sullum.)