The trial of Christopher Williams, the only defendant so far to challenge federal medical marijuana raids in Montana, started Monday in Helena.
The case pits former partners in Montana Cannabis — which grew close to 1,000 plants at the old State Nursery west of Helena — against one another, with two former partners testifying for the prosecution on Monday against Williams. Federal officials say Montana Cannabis provided marijuana to consumers from Miles City to Missoula.
In court documents filed last week in U.S. District Court, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Thaggard laid out his case against Williams. Along with numerous allegations of Williams being a conspirator with former partners Thomas Daubert, Chris Lindsey and Richard Flor, Thaggard wrote that he also may present evidence of intimidation, death threats, an extramarital affair and a notorious criminal that allegedly led to the rise and fall of a million dollar business because the information is “inextricably intertwined” with the conspiracy charge.
“Specifically, admission of the evidence is necessary to demonstrate why other members of the conspiracy, including Daubert, decided they would no longer be involved in the conspiracy and, in some cases, caused those employees to advise the authorities of the unlawful activities occurring at Montana Cannabis,” Thaggard wrote in a court brief.
Michael Donahoe’s defense strategy for Williams, also outlined in court documents, has leaned heavily toward whether federal authorities have the right to prosecute medical marijuana providers in states where it’s been legalized. He’s noted in the past that federal prosecution in Montana violates the U.S. Constitution by a “direct and intended” encroachment on Montana’s governmental rights under the “Guarantee Clause.” The clause states that the federal government can’t go against the will of the people; 62 percent of Montana voters overwhelmingly approved legalizing medical marijuana in 2004.
Donahoe noted that 17 states already have decriminalized some use of medical marijuana, and 12 others have legislation pending to legalize it. If that happens, more than half of the states would allow the use of medical marijuana, leading Donahoe to wonder if this “grass roots movement” at the state level ought to impact the federal government.
But attempts at that argument fell flat upon the initial questioning Monday afternoon, once a jury of 10 women and three men were seated.
Helena resident Daubert, 59, a longtime lobbyist and key player in the overwhelming passage of the medical marijuana law in Montana, was the first former partner to testify against Williams. He discussed how the business came together, noting that the Flor family had been growing a single annual marijuana crop at their Miles City home since about 2006.
Daubert was contacted by Williams and Lindsey — who met at the Legislature — along with Eric Billings, a medical marijuana advocate and in a conference call in 2009 with Richard Flor, they came up with the five-partner “business plan” for how to legally provide medical marijuana to people who had state-issued cards stating they had a condition that could be aided by cannabis. The company was called Montana Cannabis, and the partners have previously said they envisioned this as the “gold standard” for legally distributing marijuana in compliance with state laws.
“The co-op wasn’t so much any one person’s idea,” Daubert testified. “... They met with me for advice and at the end of the meeting I offered to be part of it and we began to sketch out our relative rules and it took off from there.”
But in hearings prior to Monday’s trial before U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen, the federal government successfully argued that under federal laws, marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug and therefore illegal no matter what states say. So every time Donahoe tried to use his line of questioning to show how the Montana Cannabis partners were trying to legitimately run a business under Montana state law, Thaggard successfully objected.
Lindsey was next on the witness stand, and noted how he drafted legal documents for the partnership.
“My role was to continue doing what I had been doing, which was representing the cause of medical marijuana, patients’ rights and try to improve the law in the political arena and public opinion realm ...” Lindsey said, but was stopped short by Thaggard’s objection as he appeared ready to say how they operated legally under Montana state law.
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Donahoe rephrased the question, and Lindsey responded that they operated “like a business” with bank accounts that paid for utility expenses, quarterly taxes, workers compensation and insurance.
“When I left the business there were 32 to 36 employees,” Lindsey said. “We had profit and loss statements.”
But he and Donahoe, as well as former office manager Sheila Abrahamson, testified that Williams and Lindsey were known to wear holsters and handguns at times, especially after a robbery at the Highway 12 nursery. Four of the counts against Williams involve the use of firearms in illegal drug trafficking.
Abrahamson related one particularly jarring incident for her, when she was called because of an electrical problem at the nursery late one night when none of the partners were around. She and her husband went to the nursery where a client was purchasing marijuana.
Abrahamson said Dan Nichols, notorious for kidnapping a young athlete running in the woods near Bozeman in the 1980s in hopes to make her his wife, was providing security at the nursery. When Abrahamson arrived at the nursery that particular night, Nichols was sitting on a couch with a large lever action revolver on his lap as the purchase was being made.
“I was scared because I knew who Mr. Nichols was and I was very concerned because I knew he was a convicted felon with a firearm,” Abrahamson said.
Abrahamson testified under immunity from prosecution. Linsdey, who pleaded guilty to manufacturing marijuana, also was immune from further prosecution for his testimony and hopes for a reduced sentence for his cooperation with the government. Daubert reached a similar plea agreement, and has been sentenced to probation for five years.
Nichols has signified his intent to plead guilty next week to conspiracy to maintain a drug-involved premises.
Flor was sentenced to five years in prison, but the 68-year-old died last month in custody due to dementia and other serious medical conditions.
Williams’ trial resumes today and is expected to last about a week in the Paul Hatfield Federal Courthouse in Helena.