While millions of Americans spent Thanksgiving weekend around the dinner table with family and friends, Chris Williams spent it behind bars, coming to terms with the fact that he may be there for the rest of his life. A single father who has never been convicted of a violent crime, Chris probably never imagined himself becoming one of the 2.5 million people incarcerated in America. He wrote this from prison:
Sitting here in Crossroads Correctional Center in Shelby, Montana, it might be hard to believe how thankful I am. I enjoy my mornings every day, sitting in a peaceful awareness. I focus on this world inside prison with an open mindfulness. After some time of thought of nothing in particular, I am overwhelmed by gratefulness, gratitude and thanks. Although life in prison is no walk in the park -- we have fights, stabbings, suicide attempts and guards being attacked and that is just in my first month -- I still find many reasons to be thankful. Your letters and support are the things I appreciate the most. As I strive to face the struggle ahead, to know I have support and people out there who keep me in their meditation and prayers, strengthens my resolve to do what is right.
By now Chris' story is well known. Chris was a co-owner of Montana Cannabis, a medical marijuana growhouse serving hundreds of state-legal patients across Montana. After a statewide federal crackdown last year, Chris and his business partners were indicted on federal charges despite their concerted efforts to follow Montana's state medical marijuana law. He is now facing a mandatory minimum sentence of more than 80 years in federal prison. I told his story in a New York Times Op-Doc video published on November 7, which made it to #2 on reddit.com and helped inspire tens of thousands of supporters to sign petitions asking for Williams' pardon or release.
In the weeks since Chris has been behind bars, there has been a sea change in the political climate surrounding marijuana. With game-changing votes in Washington and Colorado, the country and the media seem to care more than ever about marijuana policy and the failed policies of the federal War on Drugs. I believe it is critically important that the human experience of this story -- Chris' story -- is not lost behind political rhetoric and legal maneuvering.
While Chris is awaiting his sentencing hearing, he wrote this to a friend:
Many people may not realize that the Department of Justice is trying to, and will probably succeed at, sentencing me to a mandatory minimum of 85 years in the federal prison system. If I am given credit for "good time," I would be eligible for release after serving 72 years. I am now 38 years old. This would be a life sentence for me, ending with my death in prison. I was offered several "plea bargains" before my trial. Those deals could have reduced my time in prison to less than five years, but I could not take a plea deal. For me, not defending the ideals I know are right is dishonorable. I intend to hold this country and republic up to its own highest standards.
So far, the Obama administration has responded to the votes in Colorado, Washington, and Massachusetts with a deafening silence. But if we are to prevent more citizens from falling through the cracks between federal and state law, President Obama and the Department of Justice should make it clear that his administration will respect the will of voters across the country. These voters reject the misguided War on Drugs that puts citizens like Chris Williams behind bars.
To start a critical dialogue needed to bring state and federal drug laws into alignment, we're working hard to tell Chris Williams' story and show the dire consequences of our nation's current drug policies. We've got a week left in our Kickstarter campaign to raise money to re-edit our feature-length documentary about Montana's medical marijuana law, Code of the West, so that it includes critical updates on Chris Williams' evolving story.
When the new version is finished, we will screen it for communities across the United States, bringing to live audiences a story that will otherwise play out in silence and obscurity -- in prison cells like Williams'.
An abstract commitment to political change can only go so far without a true understanding of the experience of those whose lives have been devastated by our failed War on Drugs. It's time for a change, not only for Chris Williams' sake, but for the multitudes of individuals, families, and communities whose personal stories expose the dire injustice of our current drug policies.