Life for Pot?

Mandatory minimums


Of more than two dozen medical marijuana providers who were arrested in Montana following federal raids in March 2011, Chris Williams was the only one who insisted on his right to a trial. For that he paid a steep price, narrowly avoiding the equivalent of a life sentence.

Tom Daubert, one of Williams' partners in Montana Cannabis, which had dispensaries in four cities, pleaded guilty to maintaining drug-involved premises and got five years of probation. Another partner, Chris Lindsey, took a similar deal. Both testified against Williams at his trial last September. 

Williams' third partner, Richard Flor, pleaded guilty to the same charge but did not testify against anyone. Flor, a sickly 68-year-old suffering from multiple ailments, died four months into a five-year prison term.

For a while it seemed that Williams, who rejected a plea deal because he did not think he had done anything wrong and because he wanted to challenge federal interference with Montana's medical marijuana law, also was destined to die in prison. He was convicted of four marijuana charges, two of which carried five-year mandatory minimum sentences, plus four corresponding charges of possessing a firearm during a drug trafficking offense. The latter charges, based on guns at the Helena grow operation that Williams supervised and at Flor's home in Miles City, which doubled as a dispensary, triggered mandatory minimum sentences totaling 80 years. 

The penalty was so wildly disproportionate that U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter offered Williams a highly unusual post-conviction deal: Give up your appeal, and we will drop all but two charges, reducing your mandatory minimum sentence from life to five years. In December, having realized the toll that his legal battle was taking on his 16-year-old son, Williams agreed.

"I think everyone in the federal system realizes that these mandatory minimum sentences are unjust," Williams says. "They were basically leveraging this really extreme sentence against something that was so light because they wanted to force me into taking a plea deal."