Federal prosecutors and defense attorneys are honing their arguments over the fate of Christopher Williams, who was a partner in a large medical marijuana business in Helena and faces sentencing Feb. 1 in a federal courtroom in Missoula.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Thaggard is seeking a minimum 10-year sentence for Williams, saying that the nature and circumstance of his offenses were “extremely serious.” Thaggard notes in a sentencing memo filed this week that Williams previously was charged in the 1990s with distributing LSD and in a separate case with distributing marijuana — although he never was prosecuted in either case — and that he would compensate his employees at Montana Cannabis with marijuana at times, which violates both state and federal law.
In addition, Williams is the only medical marijuana provider in Montana so far to fight federal prosecution, which Thaggard believes is proof that Williams believes his conduct was “perfectly acceptable,” according to court documents.
“In short, the Defendant continues to demonstrate that he will simply do what he wants, when he wants,” Thaggard wrote. “Such is not the mentality of a person who is unlikely to commit crimes in the future. To prevent the Defendant from committing future crimes, the Court must impose a sentence that specifically deters him by incarceration.”
He added that the sentence must also deter others from engaging in similar conduct.
“The public needs to understand that a person cannot engage in large-scale drug trafficking, refuse to take responsibility for the conduct when indicted, then walk away with a short term of imprisonment,” Thaggard wrote.
But Senior Litigator Michael Donahoe with the U.S. Federal Defenders office countered that five years in prison — the mandatory minimum for one of the two counts he’s being sentenced on — will provide both deterrence and protection to the public. He notes that Williams isn’t a threat to the community and that he “has not so much gained a new respect for the law as he has surrendered to it” in what Donahoe calls a “unique” marijuana case that’s captured the nation’s attention.
“… unlike the typical drug case there is added incentive here to impose a sentence that will weather the inevitable firestorm that is sure to arise in the court of public opinion,” Donahoe wrote in court documents.
The Williams’ case has contained more twists than a head full of dreadlocks. It dates back to 2004, when Montana voters approved allowing marijuana growth and distribution to people with certain illnesses — even though the plant remained a Schedule 1 narcotic under federal law.
In 2009, Williams partnered with Richard Flor, Christopher Lindsey and Thomas Daubert to grow marijuana in a large greenhouse just west of Helena and in Flor’s backyard in Miles City. They distributed medical marijuana statewide, with Montana Cannabis dispensaries in Helena, Billings and Missoula.
Like many of Montana’s burgeoning medical marijuana businesses, the Montana Cannabis partners believed they wouldn’t be prosecuted under federal laws as long as they complied with state law. So they openly operated for almost two years, inviting state legislators, law enforcement officers and even the media to tour their facility, which they said they hoped would set the gold standard for the industry.
However, concerns about the proliferation of medical marijuana were looming both in Montana and nationwide, and in March 2011, federal agents raided 26 medical marijuana locations without warning, including Montana Cannabis.
Dozens of charges were filed against scores of marijuana providers, and everyone accepted plea agreements in hopes of light sentences — except Williams. He was indicted by a grand jury in February 2012, and convicted by a 12-member jury in September of eight marijuana-related counts; with mandatory minimum sentences, he was facing anywhere from 80 to 90 years in prison.
Thaggard offered a highly unorthodox post-conviction deal in which he would drop six of the eight charges, with a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison. Williams rejected it. He argued that his case wasn’t about medical marijuana; instead, he believed that people were in charge of their government and they had spoken in Montana their beliefs on herbal medicine. If he were to make a deal with the government, Williams said, the government would control the people instead of protecting them.
About 26,000 people signed a petition asking President Barrack Obama to pardon Williams. His case also was the topic of national blogs and a New York Times opinion piece, in which documentary film-maker Rebecca Richman Cohen questioned “why a farmer who grows marijuana in compliance with state law should be punished much more harshly than some pedophiles and killers.”
Last month, after being presented with another post-conviction plea agreement created with the assistance of U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy, Williams agreed to the terms. Donahoe asked that Judge Dana Christensen, who will be sentencing Williams, give his client only five years in prison on a weapons charge — one of the mandatory minimums under federal guidelines — and only time served (about five months) for possessing marijuana with the intent to distribute it.
Donahoe noted this week that if Williams hadn’t fought the government, chances are he would have received probationary sentences like Daubert and Lindsey. Flor was given a five-year sentence, in part because his family unknowingly sold marijuana to undercover agents prior to the partnership and also kept a large cache of weapons in their house.
“In the unique circumstances of this case it would be a mistake to condemn Mr. Williams for believing in the Constitution and exercising his right to a jury trial,” Donahoe wrote.
Thaggard counters that under federal scheduling guidelines, which are created to ensure similar sen-tences for similar crimes, Williams is facing between 121 to 181 months in prison. He wants Williams to be sentenced to 60 months on each count, with the terms to run consecutively, and notes that 60 months on the marijuana distribution charges is a 50 percent downward variance from the sentencing guidelines.
“The Defendant has failed to accept responsibility for his conduct, he played a major role in the use of firearms in the case and lacks the stability associated with some other defendants in his case,” Thaggard wrote. “He requires a greater term of imprisonment than that meted out to his codefendants.”
Yet Donahoe wonders in court documents how the federal government can continue with these prosecutions, noting that while cracking down on medical marijuana use in Montana and California, it’s not doing anything in Washington, which allows medical marijuana, and in Colorado, which voted recently to legalize it for recreational use.
“We as a nation are undoubtedly in transition insofar as medical marijuana is concerned,” Donahoe wrote. “Een though the government holds fast to the rule that all marijuana is illegal under federal law (much like a drowning man clutches a life preserver) the fact is that at this writing seventeen States and the District of Columbia have legislatively sanctioned medical marijuana production and distribution.
“Considering that ‘federal drug policies rely heavily on the states’ enforcement of their own drug laws to achieve federal objectives’ the reality is that at some point in the not too distant future the country is going to turn the page on medical/recreational marijuana out of sheer necessity.”
Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Eve on Twitter@IR_EveByron