Medical Marijuana Grower Chris Williams Faces 80 Years in Prison

On September 27th, Chris Williams, co-founder of Montana Cannabis, was found guilty on eight counts of marijuana and related firearms charges, despite his state's medical marijuana law. These charges carry a mandatory minimum sentence of more than 80 years in prison -- and expose the grave human consequences resulting from the existing disparity between federal and state laws pertaining to the medical use of marijuana.

I started filming Chris and his business partners during the last Montana state legislative session, as part of my feature-length documentary Code of the West. They seemed determined to create a model for a responsible medical marijuana caregiving operation, and routinely offered growhouse tours to law enforcement officials, politicians and community leaders, any number of which accepted this invitation.

Chris Williams had reason to believe his risk of federal prosecution was minimal, following the release of a 2009 memo by the Justice Department stating that the federal government should not focus federal resources on medical marijuana growers and patients who complied with their own state laws. But in March 2011, federal agents raided Chris' growhouse during a statewide crackdown across Montana.

In spite of a 2004 voter referendum legalizing medical marijuana in Montana, supported by 62 percent of the voters, states like Montana can't stop the federal government from enforcing its own drug laws. The Controlled Substances Act considers marijuana as a schedule I narcotic (along with heroin), which de-legitimates its medical use.

At his trial, Williams was prevented from invoking his compliance with state law as a defense against the federal charges. As a result, the jury heard a partial, and profoundly distorted version of Chris' story -- and on this basis convicted him on eight counts, which carry a mandatory minimum of more than 80 years in prison.

Chris Williams' story is now the focus of a newly released New York Times Op-Docs video, which functions as a sort of epilogue to Code of the West. It is a both a cautionary tale and a call to action to address these legal inconsistencies.

In the wake of Tuesday's votes to legalize adult use of marijuana in Colorado and Washington and medical marijuana in Massachusetts, there is a great deal of uncertainty about how federal authorities will treat patients, consumers, and growers complying with state marijuana laws.

As people like Chris Williams fall through the widening cracks between state and federal law, it's time we reform federal law to be consistent with the states, lifting cloud of uncertainty that puts law abiding citizens at risk.