DVD Review: Code of the West, directed by Rebecca Richman Cohen (2012, Racing Horse Films, 71 minutes)
In Code of the West, Emmy nominated filmmaker Rebecca Richman Cohen brilliantly tells the story of Montana's late medical marijuana wars. And now the film is itself part of the story; excerpts from it were played by the defense during the sentencing of Tom Daubert, a central figure in the film, and undoubtedly helped him escape the clutches of the federal Bureau of Prisons with an unanticipated sentence of five years' probation.
Within two years, the backlash against medical marijuana and its excesses resulted first in a bill passed by the radical Republican legislature to totally repeal the 2004 voter initiative -- vetoed by Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer -- and then in a second bill that was as close to outright repeal as you could come without calling it that. Schweitzer let that one stand, effectively wiping out the state's booming industry.
Then, as the legislature was deliberating that spring, the feds struck. In a series of coordinated raids, DEA and FBI agents raided 26 Montana medical marijuana operations in one fell swoop, sending an even clearer signal that the state's medical marijuana glory days had come and gone.
Code of the West takes you behind the scenes during that contentious year at the state house, featuring interviews with medical marijuana patients and providers, state law enforcement and legislative officials, and concerned citizens convinced that medical marijuana was going to turn their children into stoners and their state into a laughing stock.
Two of the central figures in the film are long-time state house lobbyist Tom Daubert, who ran the 2004 medical marijuana initiative and later formed Montana Cannabis, one of the state's larger providers, and Daubert's partner in Montana Cannabis, Chris Williams. Both ended up being indicted on federal marijuana trafficking charges -- this came after the period covered by the film -- and while Daubert copped a plea to earn probation, Williams refused to bend, was convicted on marijuana and weapons charges (because they had shotguns at their grows) and is now facing an 80-year mandatory minimum federal prison sentence.
"Even now, the DEA could come kick our door in and arrest us all," Williams says presciently in the film.
Cohen succeeds at portraying the opposition to medical marijuana. But while Daubert may diplomatically
praise opponents' sincerity and while Cohen takes pains to portray them with a certain degree of sympathy, they don't come off well in my book. Rock-ribbed Republicans like House Speaker Mike Milburn come off as earnest culture warriors, while the conservative Billings church ladies of Safe Kids Safe Communities, the main backlash group, come off as, well, conservative church ladies.
And not only do the Republicans and the church ladies come off as mean and pinched, they lie through their teeth about medical marijuana. (Not to mention having allies who worry about marijuana demons.)
"We stand to lose a whole generation of kids to medical marijuana," declaimed Safe Kids Safe Communities' Cherrie Brady, trumpeting a favorite opposition theme that medical marijuana was leading to skyrocketing teen pot use. The numbers actually show a slight decline.
Speaker Milburn, while attempting to appear earnest and statesmanlike, was also capable of throwing Reefer Madness-style rhetorical bombs.
"Children are prostituting themselves to gain access to drugs and this problem happened because of medical marijuana," he dared say with a straight face "These people who are medicating, they're hippies and the children of hippies."
And one final example of what we're up against. When the 2011 repeal bill passed the state Senate, the Safe Kids Safe Communities ladies were overjoyed. How overjoyed?
"All of the angels are flying up to the ceiling singing hosannas for this repeal," one gushed.
Code of the West is both a civics lesson -- this is how laws get made and unmade -- and a cinematographic pleasure. Scenes of state capital hallway lobbying and floor speechifying are intercut with glorious Montana landscapes. The film is a pleasure to watch and an important intervention in a still-running battle.
While the film ends with the federal raids of spring 2011 and the legislative follies that resulted in repeal-in-all-but name, the story doesn't end there. The worries Williams and Daubert expressed in the film about possible federal prosecution after the raids were all too true. Both were indicted on marijuana cultivation and trafficking charges by the feds, and while Daubert walked away with only probation, Williams now looks likely to become another medical marijuana martyr.
Cohen knows she stopped filming in the middle of the story, and is now working on a Kickstarter campaign to raise the $30,000 she needs to do an update. And it's not just the trials. An effort to undo last year's gutting of the program failed at the polls in November, and some medical marijuana activists have now decided to quit screwing around and just go for out and out legalization. They've already filed a ballot initiative for 2014.
There's likely to be an updated version of Code of the West in a few months. But the current version is powerful, enlightening, and beautiful. Watch it now.