Fifteen years ago, three men tried to create the “gold standard” for growing and dispensing medical marijuana in Montana. Instead, the lawyer, the lobbyist and the farmer wound up as convicted felons.

Lawyer Chris Lindsey of Missoula drafted the legal “growers’ agreement” for Montana Cannabis LLC, the company they formed, promising to track every seed to its sale as a marijuana product. Lobbyist Tom Daubert, who helped craft the state's 2004 medical marijuana initiative, meant to ensure they complied with the new state law. Farmer Chris Williams was an expert in growing what became one of the largest marijuana nurseries in Montana.

They lost everything after March 14, 2011, the day that federal agents swooped into Montana and raided 24 marijuana dispensaries around the state, Montana Cannabis among them. Per capita, that’s the equivalent of conducting almost 400 simultaneous raids in California, Daubert said. Gone were any profits from what they thought was a legitimate business. Gone were their previous careers. Gone was their ability to move about freely.

Instead, all three became convicted felons, with Daubert and Lindsey sentenced to five years on probation and Williams spending about five years in federal prison. 

“They’ve never done anything like that in California. Same in Colorado. It’s not unheard of for the feds to decide to raid somebody who seemed legal under state laws, but to do that many simultaneously is unprecedented,” Daubert said.

Today, as Montana once again considers changes to state marijuana laws — possibly even a 2020 ballot measure legalizing recreational marijuana — two of the three men at the heart of the early stages of Montana’s medical marijuana efforts tell a cautionary tale of the best of intentions gone sideways.

“There were plenty of warning signs that trouble was coming,” Lindsey recalled recently. “Unlike most states, Montana never really came around and imposed any regulatory system. That was the disconnect in Montana.

“During the time, medical cannabis bills were being put up for voter initiatives or in the legislatures. We didn’t really know how far the states could go getting regulatory oversight for the industry. Stuff wasn’t clear on how preemption would be taken by the court. And it’s still complicated.”

Lindsey remains in Missoula and is the senior legislative counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, which keeps him in the thick of the marijuana reform movement. He’s cautiously optimistic that the opposition to both medical and recreational marijuana is receding; as of this week, 10 states and the District of Columbia allow for the sale of recreational marijuana, and 33 states allow for some form of medical marijuana. Recreational marijuana for adults also is legal throughout Canada.

But Lindsey warns against people in those states believing they can grow or sell marijuana with impunity as long as marijuana remains classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance by the federal government. Despite U.S. Attorney memos that put marijuana prosecution as a low priority as long as people are in compliance with state laws, Lindsey, Daubert and Williams learned the hard way that it’s still considered illegal under federal law.

And as the lawyer, the lobbyist and the farmer all came to learn, if you cultivate and distribute marijuana, state laws can’t be brought up as a defense in federal court.

The beginning

Tom Daubert was well known around the halls of Montana’s capital as a respected lobbyist and a seasoned public speaker during his 30-year career. He was raised as a Quaker, holds undergraduate degrees in English and writing from Princeton University and a graduate degree in natural resource conservation from the University of Montana.

Today he’s retired in Pennsylvania, but in 2004, Daubert was the head of Patients and Families United, a medical marijuana legalization advocacy group that fought to get Initiative 148 on the ballot. It was approved by 62 percent of Montana voters.

Shortly afterward, Daubert watched a presentation Lindsey made to his fellow state public defenders at a conference, and the two hit it off. They started talking about implementation of I-148, and a friend put Daubert in touch with Chris Williams, who already was growing marijuana in a greenhouse near Three Forks.

Daubert, Lindsey and Williams knew that Montana’s laws were flawed and vague. So in the spring of 2009, the trio of Lindsay, Daubert and Williams, along with Richard Flor of Miles City, formed Montana Cannabis LLC, wanting to show how to comply not just with the spirit but the intent of the law.

“We wanted to create this business that we knew made sense,” Lindsey said. “We wanted to do the best every step of the way, and comply with what we think people wanted us to do. The problem was that at the same time a whole bunch of other businesses cropped up and it became a crowded field.”

They opened their business at the old state nursery in Helena, taking legislators and law enforcement officers on regular tours. Records at Montana Cannabis were computerized and digitized, and their employees even wore white lab coats at one point.

Then the "cannabis caravans" started, with doctors traveling to hotel rooms and convention centers around Montana, issuing medical marijuana cards to anyone who complained of a sore back or other simple ailment. The number of patients jumped from 495 in November 2007 to 5,006 two years later, according to Lindsey. By May 2011, two months after the raids, the number had skyrocketed to 31,500 medical marijuana patients.

The number of registered patients dropped over the years as various reforms were enacted. But that’s changing, too; as of Jan. 1, 2019, Montana reported 31,186 patients were enrolled in the state medical marijuana program.

Legalization and legislation

Last month, Sen. Diane Sands, a Democrat representing Missoula, brought forth a bill to set up an interim committee to study legalizing marijuana recreationally for adult use. Before it was tabled by the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sands testified about the need for the study.

Sands fully expects a citizen initiative will be on the 2020 ballot that asks Montana voters if they want to legalize marijuana. She requested the study in order to get ahead of the issue, rather that reacting in manners similar to what took place after the 2004 election.

“I don’t think any of us who lived through that over several sessions of creating legislation, mostly in a reactive mode, think that process was a good process or even an adequate process,” Sands said.

During that process, a committee Sands chaired brought together school officials, law enforcement and members of the medical community, among others, and now she urges her fellow legislators to take a look at what other states are doing.

“We need to simply prepare for the fact that should it become legal, we at the Legislature will have to adopt many laws to interpret that,” Sands said. “We can’t avoid the fact that legalization will be an issue put before the people of Montana, and legislators will want to be as informed as we can.”

Lindsey said there’s mainly two models with variations on either side of the nation.

Under the West Coast model, if a person meets minimum restrictions for sales, they can get a business license. The states want to know details like additives and the amounts of THC — the active ingredient that creates the high in marijuana — but the number of licenses generally isn’t limited, Lindsey said. Those markets often are oversaturated with dispensaries and nurseries.

The East Coast model is much more restrictive with its marijuana licenses, issuing only a limited number. That creates highly competitive processes, with well-funded, professional companies benefiting. Lindsey said many of the Midwestern states where marijuana is legal fall into that realm.

“They are regulated up their eyeballs and like it because that’s where their investors want to be,” Lindsey said. “It isn’t a mom and pop environment where people can say, ‘I will just get one of those licenses.’ Those folks don’t stand a chance. It’s a multi-million dollar business.”

In looking at the national level, Lindsey said Montana still ranks at the bottom when it comes to regulations, and he urges lawmakers to look outside the state’s boundaries in order to craft something with a clearer framework to protect patients and dispensaries from federal laws.

“It’s a big industry, and businesses have to know what they are doing in advance,” Lindsey said. “You can’t just set it up halfway and figure it out as you go ….

“You want to set the bar high, but keep the product cheap because ultimately you’re competing against the underground market.”

In his opinion, with so many states opting to legalize marijuana in some form, he thinks the country has turned the corner when it comes to arresting people like himself, Daubert and Williams who are trying to comply with state laws. He sees younger Republicans’ attitudes change, and notes that lawmakers are getting more comfortable with openly supporting marijuana reforms.

But at the end of the day, it’s still a federal offense. What might be saving producers, providers and users now is that there’s no money in the Department of Justice budget to prosecute people in the cannabis industry. But Lindsey said that could change any time the federal budget does.

“Everybody is open to prosecution if that changes in the budget,” he said.

The aftermath

Although Lindsey is still active in the legalization movement, he, Daubert and Williams all paid dearly for their involvement in Montana's medical marijuana industry.

Under the initial charges, all three faced mandatory minimums of at least 80 years in federal prison. Daubert and Lindsey accepted plea agreements, but part of that included testifying against Williams, who was the only person in Montana to go to trial and be convicted of the charges. He was sentenced to 65 months in federal prison as part of an unusual post-verdict plea bargain, and remains proud that he never pleaded guilty.

Both Lindsey and Daubert suffered crushing debts, with Lindsey being ordered to forfeit $288,000 and Daubert paying $55,000 in fines and restitution. The stress contributed to the break-up of Lindsey's marriage, and Daubert wasn't able to travel back East, missing his father's death and trying to assist his mother from afar as Alzheimer's eventually took over her life. Daubert said he even considered killing himself to avoid prison.

They both also lost their livelihoods; Lindsey no longer practices law and Daubert no longer is a political consultant.

Williams initially was told he would need to pay $1.7 million in fines and restitution, but that was dropped as part of the plea agreement. He lives outside Bozeman after spending five years in both minimum- and maximum- security prisons, as well as jails in Montana, Oregon and Washington. He was released in June 2017.

"One of the first jobs they gave me was managing the greenhouse, growing food for the prisoners," Williams said, quietly laughing at the irony.

Daubert said the fourth Montana Cannabis partner, Flor, perhaps met the worst fate. Flor died from medical problems in a Las Vegas jail during a layover in a prison transfer in August 2012, while serving his five-year sentence. He had pleaded guilty to running a medical marijuana operation out of his Miles City home.

Despite the toll, Daubert said it's been a remarkable journey for him, during which he met some amazing people, including a shaman who helped him spiritually. After each legislative session, Daubert had considered finding a new profession, and he finally left lobbying after his experience with Montana's foray into medical marijuana.

"In some ways, I look back at it and this was the best thing that could have happened to me," Daubert said.

Williams also believes the episode made him a better person. While incarcerated, he read 2,000 books including "War and Peace" — twice. He ran his first marathon. He deepened his spirituality with Native American religion practices.

"I made it my ashram," Williams said. "I came out smarter in the end. I came out healthier in the end. I came out with a new set of goals and objectives. They took those five years, and I took it back for a gain."

Today, he and his girlfriend live on a farm, raising pigs and goats, cultivating crops that they share with friends and local food banks. He's also trying to raise awareness of some 100 people who remain in federal prisons for nonviolent crimes involving marijuana, and speaks out about the "prosecutorial discretion" that he believes allows federal attorneys to decide to arrest one person and but ignore another, even if they're both operating marijuana dispensaries in the same fashion.

Williams also has a marijuana dispensary business plan that he wrote in prison, based on the mistakes he believes were made in those early days.

"I looked at every little mistake that was made," Williams said. "I thought of doing consulting in the industry, but I really haven't taken it on because I'm enjoying what I'm doing. Every single day."

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