Rebecca Richman Cohen is a Soros Justice Fellow and director of CODE OF THE WEST.
This month, a man I have come to know and respect was sentenced on federal drug charges. Tom Daubert is a political and strategic consultant and a drug policy reform activist with a long history of work for humane medical marijuana laws. He’s also one of the central characters in a documentary that I produced and directed called CODE OF THE WEST. When I first met Tom in August 2010, I had no idea where his story would lead, but I had some inclination that it would be important.
My crew and I first met Tom as we set out to capture the human story behind the legislative process of state-level marijuana policy reform—a messy, tangled affair that has implications for policy reform in other states and for the democratic process in the nation at large. We knew that the federal government considers marijuana a Schedule I Narcotic (with no accepted medical use). We also knew that an increasing number of states, including Montana, disagreed with that assessment.
Today seventeen states and Washington DC have legalized medical marijuana use for people suffering from debilitating medical conditions including cancer, epilepsy, severe nausea, multiple sclerosis and chronic pain. Working to make medical marijuana safe and legal for such patients was Tom Daubert’s mission. In 2004, Tom ran the Montana campaign to legalize medical marijuana, and he continued to lobby on behalf of sensible medical marijuana laws after the medical marijuana was passed. Alongside these efforts, he also briefly became a medical marijuana provider and a co-owner of Montana Cannabis, one of the larger dispensaries in the state.
As our cameras rolled, we filmed Tom giving tours of the growhouse to state senators and law enforcement officials. He showed them the plants, acquainted them with the production and distribution process, and opened his books without reservation. He aimed to show that medical marijuana distribution could be a clean, legitimate, successfully regulated business.
But six months later, as our cameras continued to roll, federal agents descended on Montana Cannabis with sirens blaring and guns drawn. Soon thereafter, federal prosecutors issued indictments on all four co-owners, including Tom. What was presumed to be a legitimate business under Montana state law was destroyed, and its owners’ lives were devastated.
As a matter of federal law, Tom was prevented from submitting a defense, which argued that his company had complied with Montana’s medical marijuana law. If he went to trial, he faced criminal charges that carried a minimum sentence that would have placed Tom in prison for the rest of his life. Under these circumstances, Tom concluded that he had little choice other than to take a plea that carried a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
In early September, my crew and I returned to Montana to film Tom’s sentencing. And as the judge read Tom’s sentence, we had some reason to celebrate: Tom is not going to federal prison. On September 6, he received five-years probation and $50,000 in federal forfeiture fines for his role as an owner of Montana Cannabis. "I'm grateful for the judge's leniency but I will never stop believing that patients deserve to live under a law that recognizes true science," he said. Tom’s defense team submitted CODE OF THE WEST to the federal judge and highlighted the scenes of Tom’s growhouse tours. The judge watched the film in its entirety.
Despite the hope implicit in the judge’s avoidance of a jail sentence, Tom’s situation also reflects despair. The week before Tom’s sentencing, one of his former business partners, Richard Flor, died in federal custody. Unlike Tom, Richard was not given probation. He was sentenced to five years in prison even though he had a long history of serious health problems. He was held in a private prison in Montana for months, and authorities delayed his transfer to a federal prison where he could have received appropriate medical care. U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell wrote in his Aug. 7 order that it was "unfortunate" that Flor's transfer to a Bureau of Prisons medical facility was delayed, but "it is not factually or legally significant."
Impelled by the importance of Tom’s and Richard’s cases, we’re working hard to bring the story of Montana Cannabis to audiences beyond the courtroom. We’ve partnered with the ACLU of Montana to host a series of screenings and discussions across Montana as part of the ACLU’s mission to educate the public about medical marijuana, the enforcement of current drug laws, and the impact that drug policy has on prison overpopulation. We hope Tom and Richard’s story will inspire audiences to work for sensible drug policy reform. It’s hard to hear their stories and believe that any reasonable law would put people like them in prison.
You can participate by spreading the word on Facebook, attending a screening event or wearing a CODE OF THE WEST t-shirt proudly, Now for the first time, you can also organize a screening event in your community. With your help, we can show that the stories behind medical marijuana legislation and policy consist not only of legal maneuvers and federal statutes, but of human lives. Help us tell Tom’s story and continue his work for humane drug policy reform.