Wild, Wild “West”
I just saw the indie film “Code of the West” by local filmmaker Rebecca Richman Cohen. It’s being shown as part of the Boston Independent Film Festival. Go see it! It’s about Montana’s on-again, off-again medical marijuana law. It gives a fair look at the various players in a real-life drama, without parodying any of them. And perhaps most important, it’s a story that may be coming to your town soon.
The storyline (spoiler alert). In 2004, Montana voters passed a ballot initiative to allow private businesses to sell marijuana for medical use. Over the years, as the number of businesses and users grew and certain flaws in the law became clear, the backlash grew as well. In 2011, the Montana legislature voted to repeal the law. But Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed the repeal, citing the “will of the people” -- and wielding a cattle brand for emphasis. At the same time, repeal proponents were also pushing a “regulation” bill that, among other things, barred growers from getting paid for their produce. I’d call that strangulation, not regulation, but I guess that was the point. In a plot twist that even the filmmaker herself couldn’t foresee, the DEA showed up in the middle of the Legislature’s debate to raid 26 legally-run marijuana providers. The regulation bill passed. Gov. Schweitzer declined to sign the bill but he didn’t veto it either, so it became law.
Medical marijuana for Massachusetts? Cohen’s film is especially timely, given that Massachusetts voters may be weighing in on a similar – but presumably improved – ballot initiative this November. Bills were filed this session in the House and the Senate that would allow non-profit treatment centers to provide medical marijuana. But both bills have been sent to a “study committee,” which means they’re most likely dead for this session. However, a group called the Committee for Compassionate Medicine is working to put the issue directly before voters this fall.
One of the troubling things in the film is the repeal proponents’ battle cry to “protect our children.” Yet studies showed that marijuana use among Montana teens had actually decreased slightly since 2004. So much for evidence-based legislation. If the issue makes it to the ballot here, we may see the same approach.
Didn’t they get the memo? Well, actually, they did. The most disconcerting scene for me was the federal raid. Marijuana is illegal under federal law, period. But as you may remember, in 2009 the U.S. Justice Dept. issued a memo stating that the prosecution of those who use or provide medical marijuana in compliance with state laws would no longer be a priority for them. The film shows Montana growers working with state law enforcement agencies to be sure they are doing it right. Then it shows the raid.
I come from a civil rights background. The slogan “states' rights” still makes me cringe. For decades, those struggling for equality turned to the federal government for protection and enforcement. So it’s downright creepy to watch DEA agents dumping out and hauling off plants from business owners (aren’t they now called job creators?). Just a few days ago, the U.S. Justice Department issued its first statement about the raids, saying that prosecutions will continue. The feds claimed that some of those arrested were not in “clear and unambiguous compliance” with Montana law, as required by the 2009 memo. But isn’t that an issue for Montana authorities?
But wait. It’s gotten worse. U.S. Attorneys in several states that have passed medical marijuana laws are now warning elected officials that they still plan to enforce the federal law, even to the point of threatening to arrest state employees. Delaware passed its medical marijuana bill in 2011, allowing the licensing of three non-profit dispensaries. The state was in the process of drafting regulations when, in February, Delaware’s U.S.Attorney warned Gov. Jack Markell that the feds would consider prosecuting even “state employees who conduct activities mandated by the Delaware Medical Marijuana Act.” Gov. Markell put the program on ice, rather than subject state employees to federal drug trafficking charges.
This, to me, is truly reefer madness. The federal government seems determined to play “chicken” with state officials who are trying to implement the voters’ will (isn’t that called democracy?). Some question whether the feds could win, if push comes to shove. Certainly there are issues where the lines must be drawn. But is this really one of them? Pity the poor cancer patients who are caught in the middle.
FAMM Massachusetts Project Director