Feds Aggressively Asserting Federal Law in State Marijuana Cases

We know by now that the feds don’t want to see the people of this country have access to marijuana—whether for recreation or for the numerous medical benefits it offers. We know this because federal prosecutors continue to levy charges against those dispensary owners and operators that are abiding by state laws but running afoul of the seriously misguided federal Drug Control Act. So, what could happen to those people who take a stand and decide to sell pot in state-authorized dispensaries?

US Supreme CourtIf the case of Chris Williams, a dispensary worker and medical marijuana grower in Montana offers any clue—anyone who violates federal drug laws, even when they follow the laws of their respective state, could be going to prison for a very, very long time, especially if they don’t play according to the prosecutors’ rules.

According to Reason.com, Williams and his codefendants were prosecuted after raids shut down their Montana Cannabis dispensaries; there were four across the state. They all faced widely varying sentences, and it wasn’t because they were involved in widely varying aspects of the dispensary operations, but because federal prosecutors (who really seem to run things anymore) decided to do a little wheeling and dealing.

Two dozen medical marijuana providers were arrested and charged in Montana in 2011. Williams is the only one that demanded a trial. He wanted to challenge the federal government’s insistence on prosecuting state-approved pot growers. But his ambition would cost him.

One of Williams’ partners pled guilty to maintaining a drug-involved premises and got probation, another will likely get a similar deal after agreeing to plead guilty. Both testified against Williams at trial. Another partner also pleaded guilty but didn’t testify against Williams. For his lack of cooperation, he was sentenced to five years. He died four months into his term.

Williams faced four drug charges, each carrying a five year mandatory minimum. The prosecutor (maybe still mad that Williams didn’t want to play his game) also tacked on four weapons charges of possessing a firearm during a drug trafficking offense (guns that were in a dispensary but never handled by Williams). For those, he would face a 5 year minimum for the first offense and 25 years for each additional offense, to be run consecutively. In all, Williams would face more than 80 years in prison.

Eighty years for following state law and delivering medicine to the people of Montana. Eighty years because he refused to say he did something wrong and refused to bow to federal prosecutors.

It wasn’t until after the conviction that the potential reality settled in for Williams. Prosecutors then offered him 10 years on a deal. He refused. It wasn’t until they offered 5 that he agreed. He buckled and agreed to drop all appeals for the shorter sentence.

Williams’ case won’t go to Federal Appeals Court; it won’t go to the U.S. Supreme Court, and it won’t be the case that could potentially settle things once and for all between state marijuana laws and the federal insistence that marijuana is a highly dangerous substance. Why? Because the system broke him. Faced with the rest of his life in prison, without his family, Williams did what hundreds of thousands of other defendants have done in the Drug War, he played the game to save his life.

Williams is a hero for fighting as long as he could. But until Federal policy is changed either at the executive level, i.e. the President –  or via a state challenge in the Federal courts in another case,  we all lose.


About Elizabeth

Elizabeth Renter is a freelance writer and editor who writes about criminal justice issues.

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