On Tuesday I noted a Washington Post editorial that described the Obama administration's policy regarding medical marijuana as mainly "hands off," with the Justice Department "focusing scarce resources on major violators." Similarly, the Associated Press reported a few weeks ago that "the Obama administration has largely turned a blind eye" to medical marijuana in states where it is legal. Here is what that hands-off, blind-eye policy looks like in Montana: Chris Williams, a partner in Montana Cannabis, faces a prison sentence of 80 to 92 years for supplying patients with marijuana—and for insisting on his right to a trial.

Williams' business was one of several Montana dispensaries raided by the Drug Enforcement Administration last year. He is the only defendant arrested as a result of those raids who has refused to plead guilty. One of his partners, Tom Daubert, received probation; another, Chris Lindsey, reached a similar deal but has not been sentenced yet; and a third, Richard Flor, died while serving a five-year prison sentence.

What explains this astonishing range of penalties, from zero prison time to nearly a century? Mandatory minimums. Specifically, prosecutors charged Williams, after he turned down a series of plea deals, with four counts of using firearms in furtherance of a drug crime, based on pistols and shotguns kept at the Helena grow operation where he worked. Federal law prescribes a five-year mandatory minimum penalty for the first such offense and 25 years for each subsequent offense. Furthermore, the sentences must be served consecutively. Hence Williams, who was convicted of all four gun charges, will get at least 80 years when he is sentenced in January, even though he was not charged with wielding the guns, let alone hurting anyone with them. In fact, having the guns around would have been perfectly legal had he not been growing marijuana. (This is the same provision under which Weldon Angelos, a 24-year-old record producer, received a 55-year sentence for a few small-time pot sales in 2004.) The Missoulian reports that Williams could get an additional 12 years for the four marijuana counts on which he was convicted, but whatever the precise number it is effectively a life sentence.

The mandatory penalty is so absurdly, unfathomably harsh, in fact, that after Williams' trial U.S. Attorney Mike Cotter took the extraordinary step of offering to drop one count of manufacturing marijuana, two counts of possession with intent to distribute, and the three firearm counts associated with them, which would have made it possible for Williams to serve "only" 10 years. All Williams had to do was refrain from appealing his convictions. He refused, insisting that he did nothing wrong and that the feds had no business interfering with a medical marijuana system blessed by the state of Montana. 

During his trial Williams was not allowed to mention Montana's medical marijuana law, since it is not deemed relevant to his guilt under the federal Controlled Substances Act, which recognizes no legitimate use for cannabis. In addition to his criminal appeal, Williams is pursuing a civil suit arguing that the federal crackdown on medical marijuana violates the 10th Amendment by usurpring powers "reserved to the States." I think he is right, but I don't see how he can prevail in light of Gonzales v. Raich, the 2005 case in which the Supreme Court held that the power to regulate interstate commerce authorizes federal action against people who grow and possess marijuana for medical use in compliance with state law. Robert Raich, who helped argue that case on behalf of his wife, Angel Raich, tells A.P., ""The War on Drugs is too sacrosanct a sacred cow for the courts to weigh in [Williams'] favor." 

[via the Drug War Chronicle]