DC at Night

DC at Night

Friday, April 12, 2013

Marijuana and the Code of the West

When you think of the drug capitals of the Americas you might consider Mexico. Or perhaps Columbia. But chances are Montana wouldn't come to mind. But in 2011, that state was the site of sweeping federal raids that effectively shut down the burgeoning medical marijuana industry there and sent growers to long prison terms, actions that came despite state laws that allowed both the growth and sale of marijuana as medicine.

The problem, as it is in 18 other states and the District of Columbia, is that while local laws permit growth and sale of medical marijuana, federal law still makes all such activities illegal. The situation became even more complicated last November when voters in 2 states - Colorado and Washington - approved recreational marijuana use in their communities.

An examination of the machinations behind the Montana crackdown forms the basis of the documentary Code of the West, which explores 2 basic questions - what codes should we live by and what should happen to those who choose to dissent? The film was recently screened at the Cato Institute and was followed by presentations from 2 critics of the current federal drug policy, both of whom described that policy as draconian and out-of-touch with reality.

Julie Stewart, the head of the 64,000-member Families Against Mandatory Minimums, called the sentences applied in Montana and elsewhere "outrageous." She 1st became involved in the issue after her brother was sentenced as a "drug kingpin" to 5 years in a Washington state prison for growing 365 marijuana plants in his garage.

Stewart said she found it appalling that the sentence was imposed because her brother declined to name other marijuana growers. "He chose not to report them because he didn't want to destroy someone else," Stewart said.

"This movie just makes you crazy that the federal government is sticking its nose in where it doesn't belong. It's worrisome that this could happen in other states. We are just waiting for the other shoe to drop," she said. "I mean really, how important is it to prosecute these people. It's a plant. And they are following local laws."

As you would expect from the title of her organization, Stewart leveled some of her strongest criticism at the laws that call for mandatory sentence lengths for people found guilty of crimes such as marijuana sales. "You need discretion. Life is not black and white. Life is shades of grey."

Stephanie Sherrer, a long-time medical marijuana user and a spokesperson for Americans for Safe Access, said the federal government's position is wrong, but that the situation in Montana was poorly handled at both the state and federal levels.

"I am an advocate of medical marijuana, but I think you need to have discussions," Sherrer said. "What we saw in Montana was actually the opposite of that. The battle that we have with the federal government is that we're told we have to be black or white and we are not black and white - we are gray. Nobody is looking out for the medical user of marijuana. If we're not going to find legal access, we will be forced to use (illegal) dealers."

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You can view the trailer for the documentary Code of the West by clicking here.

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