Three men who openly operated medical marijuana businesses in Helena and Great Falls were sentenced in federal court Thursday to a year in prison.
In an emotionally charged hearing, Senior U.S. District Court Judge Charles Lovell handed down the prison terms to Joshua Schultz, Jesse Leland and Jason Burns. About 75 friends and family members who packed into the federal courthouse in Helena were hoping the judge would take the recommendation of probation made by the men’s attorneys, but also feared that the judge might impose a mandatory minimum sentence of five years or even the maximum of 40 years.
Yet judges are allowed discretion when it comes to sentencing, even with mandatory minimums. Since the men had admitted their guilt, cooperated with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, had minimal if any criminal records and believed they were in compliance with state laws governing medical marijuana, court officials recommended a guideline sentencing range of 24 to 30 months.
But Lovell lowered the sentences even further, noting that this was a highly unusual case, pitting state against federal laws regarding marijuana.
“The sentencing range that established the guidelines has been, in the judgment of the court, excessive for utilization in this particular case under what I find to be very unusual circumstances,” Lovell said. “While it is true that the law was violated and while it is true that the computation set forward by the U.S. Probation Office complies with the guidelines in an ordinary case, this is not an ordinary case as to each of the three defendants.
“… We need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparity among defendants found guilty of similar misconduct and who have similar records.”
Still, the 12-month sentences to a federal penitentiary shook the courtroom, with mothers, wives and friends breaking into tears, sighs of “no” ringing out and men dropping their heads into their hands.
Attorneys for the three men noted that this wasn’t the typical drug case involving clandestine manufacturing of drugs without regulations. In 2004, 62 percent of Montana voters passed an initiative removing criminal penalties under Montana state law related to the medicinal use, possessing and cultivation of marijuana for qualifying patients and registered caregivers.
Few people registered with the state as patients or caregivers until 2009, when the “Ogden Memo” was issued to federal prosecutors by then U.S. Deputy Attorney General David Ogden. Generally, it said prosecution of marijuana cases in states with medical marijuana laws should be low on the priority list.
But many people who read the memo thought it said the federal government wouldn’t prosecute medical marijuana cases, and the number of caregivers and patients skyrocketed in Montana. Leland, 28, and Burns, 40, formed Queen City Caregivers LLC and registered the business with the Secretary of State’s office.
The men maintained records regarding the eligible patients for which they could manufacture marijuana under the state law and even met with local law enforcement officials, who counted 749 plants growing at their nursery on Westhaven Road in Helena. The officials determined that Burns and Leland were in compliance with state laws and didn’t issue any citations.
Meanwhile, Schultz, 38, opened Natural Medicine of Great Falls, which operated like a broker, buying and selling marijuana among caregivers.
“As (Schultz’s) character letters attest, he is a good family man and a productive member of the community,” defense attorney Michael Donahoe wrote on behalf of his client in court documents. “Absent the government’s publication of the Ogden Memo, there is no evidence to support the conclusion that (Schultz) would have engaged in the business of selling marijuana.
“… And under the Ogden Memo it was more than reasonable for (Schultz) to assume that he would not be targeted for federal prosecution, so long as he was making a good faith effort to remain in compliance with Montana’s medical marijuana laws.”
But in March, the federal government carried out dozens of raids in Montana, including at the three men’s businesses. They were arrested and jailed on about 25 charges each including manufacturing and distributing marijuana and money laundering.
In court Thursday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Thaggard reiterated that the Ogden Memo only spoke about prioritization of crimes, and federal prosecutors in Montana felt a need to corral the state’s exploding medical marijuana industry. He added that the memo also said people wouldn’t be prosecuted when there was “clear and unambiguous compliance” with state law, and the three men didn’t fall into that category. For example, Leland had sold marijuana to an undercover officer, and the state law doesn’t allow for caregiver to caregiver transactions.
“The memo didn’t say sort of comply or try to comply or attempt to comply … and the use and distribution of medical marijuana is still against federal law,” Thaggard said. “So it’s a little disingenuous for these defendants to come forward saying they didn’t believe they would be fair game for prosecution.”
The court received dozens of letters from supporters of all three men, who noted that they were upstanding fathers, uncles and friends, as well as caring individuals who were only trying to help people who were ill. Thaggard noted that while that may be true, the men also made quite a bit of money — around $1.3 million by the government’s accounting.
Burns, who also owns a construction business in Helena, pleaded guilty in September to growing marijuana and money laundering. Leland pleaded guilty to manufacturing marijuana and Schultz pleaded guilty to distribution of marijuana. In exchange for the guilty pleas, the other charges were dropped Thursday and the defendants agreed not to appeal the sentences.
Leland and Burns each forfeited $454,666 in a bank account that was seized and Schultz paid the government $110,000 prior to the sentencing. He also forfeited a 2001 Mercedes Benz.
All three men were set free Thursday, but will have to report to federal prison as soon as they’re ordered to begin their sentences. After the release, Burns will be on supervised probation for three years and Leland and Schultz will be supervised for four years.
Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or email@example.com or Twitter.com/IR_EveByron