A new documentary on medical marijuana raised some old issues in Missoula during a discussion following Tuesday’s Montana premiere of “Code of the West.”
The film by Rebecca Richman Cohen traces the 2011 legislative battle to revise or outright repeal Montana’s 2004 voter-approved law legalizing the medical use of cannabis.
That fight – and the simultaneous federal raids that helped lead to the near-shutdown of Montana’s medical marijuana industry – has made for “the perfect storm of a legal mess” surrounding the drug in Montana, said former Congressman Pat Williams, who moderated the discussion.
The panel at one point drew prolonged applause for an unlikely source – Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg, who’s long had a contentious relationship with marijuana advocates.
But Van Valkenburg, who was on the panel, laid part of the blame for the legal mess on Montana politics, which, he said, “has devolved into a situation where the Republicans in Montana are totally unreasonable, absolutely unwilling to compromise … and (you have) politicians like Brian Schweitzer who are more interested in a nightclub act than solving problems. When you have that kind of situation, you can’t fix anything because people just want to put on a show.”
“Code of the West” features a widely publicized clip of Schweitzer putting a “veto” branding iron to a number of Republican-sponsored bills, including one to repeal the medical marijuana law.
However, a bill that nearly accomplished the same goal was approved, and even though a judge suspended portions of it, Montana’s medical marijuana industry is much diminished.
Cohen’s film follows the actions of medical marijuana lobbyist Tom Daubert, who crafted the 2004 initiative, and repeal proponent Cherrie Brady of Billings. The film opens with Daubert discussing his terror of federal indictment after Montana Cannabis, a business he co-founded, was among those hit by last year’s federal raids.
Work on the film was completed before that came to pass. Earlier this month, Daubert pleaded guilty to conspiracy to maintain drug-involved premises in U.S. District Court and is to be sentenced in September.
Despite audience enthusiasm for his criticism of politicians, Van Valkenburg – himself a longtime elected official and former president of the state Senate – drew some hisses when he remarked that Daubert “apparently decided to take the plea bargain and minimize the consequences to himself.”
As for a move to amend the state constitution to legalize marijuana, “I don’t think the majority of Montanans, let alone the majority of Americans, support the idea that anyone over age 21 should possess and use marijuana for any purpose. ... I think pushing this constitutional amendment is going to bring out the Cherrie Bradys. … It will do more harm than good.”
John Masterson of Montana NORML pointed out a recent Gallup poll showing that, for the first time, 50 percent of Americans favored legalizing marijuana, with that percentage rising to 54 in the West and 57 among Democrats.
“It’s a God-given herb. It’s less toxic than aspirin, less addictive than coffee – and it’s fun,” he said.
“Social change is messy. Social movements are messy,” said state Rep. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, whose bill to better regulate medical marijuana was shot down by the Legislature. “That it’s such a mess causes people to get out and do something about it.”
“Code of the West” will be screened in Bozeman (Wednesday, May 16, and Monday, May 21), Helena (Thursday, May 17, and Friday, May 18) and Billings (Tuesday, May 22). The film will be screened at the Wilma Theatre again at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 23.
Reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, firstname.lastname@example.org or @CopsAndCourts on Twitter.