Chris Williams is sitting in a private federal prison on the Montana prairie these days awaiting sentencing. If the federal government has its way, he won't be a free man again for three-quarters of a century, an effective life sentence for a middle-aged man like Williams.
Williams is one of the more than two dozen Montana medical marijuana providers caught up in the federal dragnet after mass raids in March 2011 savaged the state's medical marijuana community, including Montana Cannabis, one of the state's largest providers, where he was a partner. A true believer in the cause, Williams is the only one of those indicted after the federal raids to not cop a plea, and he was convicted on eight federal marijuana and weapons charges in September after being blocked from mentioning the state's medical marijuana laws during his trial.
It is the gun charges that are adding decades to his sentences. As is the case in drug raids where police come up against armed homeowners, or as was the case of Salt Lake City rap record label owner and pot dealer Weldon Angelos ended up with a 55-year sentence because he sometimes packed a pistol, the Williams case is one where the rights granted under the 2nd Amendment clash with the imperatives of the drug war.
Williams was not convicted of using his firearms or even of brandishing them, but merely of having legal shotguns present at the medical marijuana grow, which was legal under Montana law. Still, that's enough for the gun sentencing enhancements to kick in, and that's enough to cause a rising clamor of support for Williams as he faces a January sentencing date.
"The sentence shocks the conscience," said Chris Lindsey, a former business partner of Williams who is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to a federal marijuana conspiracy charge. "Look at (former Penn State assistant football coach) Jerry Sandusky. For 45 counts of child sexual abuse, he gets 30 years. Chris Williams is going to get three times that for being a medical marijuana provider. It doesn't make any logical sense," he told the Missoulian.
Williams supporters have created a Free Chris Williams Facebook page and are petitioning the White House through its We the People online petition program for a full pardon for him. The White House responds to petitions that achieve over 25,000 signatures; the Williams petition has managed to generate slightly more than 20,000 signatures in less than two weeks. Other petitions seeking clemency for Williams are at SignOn.org and Care2.com.
Williams and his supporters are not just relying on the kindness of the White House. He is appealing his criminal conviction to the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals, and he is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that claims he and other medical marijuana providers were in compliance with Montana state law and the federal raid and subsequent prosecutions were an unconstitutional usurpation of state and local powers under the 10th Amendment. That amendment says powers not granted to the federal government by the Constitution and not prohibited by the states are reserved to the states or the people.
But legal experts said his chances for victory in the civil lawsuit were small, and he would still be saddled with the federal criminal conviction.
"The war on drugs is too sacrosanct a sacred cow for the courts to weigh in favor," said California marijuana attorney Robert Raich, who has argued and lost two marijuana cases at the Supreme Court. "I think we can make better progress by doing something other than filing lawsuits," he said in an interview with the Helena Independent Record.
Still, Raich said he sympathized with Williams' plight and added that the federal attack on Montana providers was among its harshest.
"Montana is the worst," he said. "The federal government has attacked medical cannabis with a vengeance in Montana more than any other state."
Williams' attorney in the civil suit, Paul Livingston, said he would press forward with the appeal even if his client is behind bars.
"He has been made a martyr," said attorney Livingston. "It's a very solid case, it is a case that needs to be decided and I think everyone would agree once they learn the facts of what happened," Livingston said.
Ironically, as Williams languishes behind bars contemplating spending the rest of his life in prison, Montana could become the next state to legalize marijuana. Medical marijuana activists there, frustrated by the legislature's gutting of their program last year and their inability to get that overturned this year, have filed papers to put a legalization initiative on the ballot in 2014. Even that wouldn't directly help Williams, but it would serve to further underline the senselessness of his sentence.