Yet another one-time owner of the Montana medical marijuana business that went from being an example of good state practice to made an example of was sentenced to five years in prison this week.
Chris Williams averted a mandatory minimum sentence of 85 years after he agreed to a last-minute plea deal. While mandatory minimum sentences for distributing marijuana alone are draconian, his minimum sentence was ratcheted up to 85 years because firearms were found at the dispensary, which allowed prosecutors to charge Williams with possessing a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking.
Williams was part of a group of partners who ran a prominent medical marijuana business that is legal under Montana law. Among Montana Cannabis’ founders was lobbyist Tom Daubert, who helped write the state’s medical marijuana law, and entered the medical marijuana industry to provide an example for model compliance with state law. On the belief that federal prosecutors would not target dispensaries legal under state law, the partners ran their business openly and provided frequent tours to legislators. Instead, their dispensary and 25 others in Montana were raided by federal prosecutors in 2011.
While the other three operators of Montana Cannabis had accepted plea deals early on, Williams was committed to defending his case at trial and was convicted on several counts. In a rare move, prosecutors offered him a post-conviction deal to drop enough of the charges to bring the mandatory minimum sentence down to five years if Williams did not appeal. Williams accepted the deal, he said, on the chance that he might be out of jail in time to see his 16-year-old’s son’s graduation – if the judge showed enough mercy to sentence him to only the five-year minimum. U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen, whose hands were tied by federally mandated minimum drug sentences, showed both mercy and regret in sentencing Williams to five years, while calling the sentence “unfair and absurd.” The Independent Record reports:
Williams initially was convicted of four charges of possession of a firearm during a drug-trafficking offense, which could have netted mandatory minimums totaling 80 years. He also could have gotten another five years for the four drug counts on which he was also convicted in September.
But, said U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen in reviewing the facts of Williams’ case Friday, “it was my belief that an 85-year sentence in this case would have been unjust.”
In December, Christensen successfully urged a compromise that involved the feds dropping three of the gun charges and three drug charges against Williams in exchange for his agreement not to appeal.
Even this comparatively humane compromise is troubling – prosecutors essentially coerced Williams’ plea deal by lobbing at him an absolutely absurd prison sentence for his mere participation in a state-compliant business to provide medical marijuana to sick patients. And aside from losing the chance to defend his innocence, Williams will spend five years in jail. His partner Richard Flor died in prison after being sentenced to ten years, and both Daubert and fellow partner Chris Lindsey were sentenced — also by Christensen – to five years of probation. The story of these four partners is particularly prominent because it was the subject of the documentary Code of the West. But they are far from the only ones subject to federal crackdowns. In California, a medical marijuana defendant was sentenced to ten years in prison just last month.