Up in smoke 

Code chronicles Montana's weed debate

Code of the West ends with a postscript about one of the documentary's main characters, Tom Daubert, noting that the chief architect of the state's medical marijuana law had rejected a plea bargain with the federal government that would have resulted in a $250,000 fine and a minimum of 10 years in prison. Daubert, the movie states, was still awaiting his fate.

We now know the wait will be over this fall. Daubert appeared in court last week to plead guilty to federal drug charges and ultimately accept a deal; his sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 6. He will almost certainly receive jail time because he had the audacity to follow a state law that he helped write and voters asked for and the legislature approved, but that has always been a violation of federal statute.

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  • Code of the West

It doesn't make a lick of sense, and it's just one example of the frustrating, head-scratching and not completely unforeseen turns captured in Code of the West. The documentary, which screens at the Wilma this week, and again on May 23 sets out to chronicle the 2011 legislative fight over Montana's medical marijuana law, a contentious and fluid debate that teetered between outright repeal and, if Daubert had his way, certain amendments that would have addressed concerns over a weed industry gone wild. The already heated Helena discussion went nuclear when, during the actual vote on a proposed repeal bill, federal agents issued 26 search warrants across the state and raided some of the biggest caregiver operations, including one that Daubert was a partner in. It's curious timing that to date has gone unexplained by authorities, but that adds an entire other level to a film that does an exceptional job of covering a complicated issue.

Code of the West doesn't exactly offer new information, but that's hard to accomplish after medical marijuana so dominated local headlines for years. Instead, director Rebecca Richman Cohen clearly follows the legislative process and smartly focuses on people who best frame the debate. There's Daubert, who spent more than 20 years lobbying in Helena before agreeing to be the frontman for medical marijuana. He comes across as thoughtful, rational, strategic and understanding of his opponents' concerns. He even spends time giving tours of Montana Cannabis, his grow operation, to law enforcement and skeptical state lawmakers. All of which makes it that much more puzzling when he, of all people, is targeted by the feds.

Alongside Daubert, we meet the staff at Montana Cannabis. At the time of the raid, the facility employs more than 30 people. After the raid—the film includes chilling images of gas-masked agents ripping apart rows of plants—one employee says he's off to the unemployment line. "Here, government: Give me some money now that you just took my job," says another.

We also meet Lori Burnam, a delightful older woman who suffers from advanced cancer and emphysema and uses a vaporizer filled with marijuana to help ease her pain. She drives 100 miles roundtrip to get her medicine from Missoula's (now closed) Zoo Mountain Clinic, and fears what'll happen if the law changes. She explains she's not exactly "connected."

On the other side, there's Cherrie Brady, chair of Safe Community, Safe Kids, and state Rep. Mike Milburn, who introduced the repeal bill. Brady drives a busy stretch of road, pointing out the proliferation of storefronts with psychedelic signs offering specials on a substance the federal government has deemed illegal. Her group runs a commercial proclaiming marijuana brings you one step closer to meth and cocaine. Her effort is all about saving kids, she says.

Milburn amps up the rhetoric when he stands on the House floor and compares Montana caregivers to Columbian drug lords. He adds that it's only old hippies and their children who are benefitting from the state law. It's worth noting that, unlike Daubert, neither Brady nor Milburn shows much compassion for the other side of the debate, including patients like Burnam. In their minds, illegal is illegal, end of story.

Code of the West gets its title from one of the 2011 Legislature's more ridiculous bills: Senate President Jim Peterson's motion to adopt a list of simple-minded bromides lifted from a book called Cowboy Ethics. This list includes lines that would probably appeal to the likes of both Brady and Daubert, lines such as "Do what has to be done" and "Know where to draw the line."

Cohen and her film do an admirable job of balancing both sides of the argument, but it's hard at the end not to notice a distinct sympathetic lean toward the pro-medical marijuana contingent. After all, when you get to the part of Peterson's code that says, "Be tough, but fair," only one side can say it sincerely tried to follow the suggestion.

Code of the West screens at the Wilma Theatre Tue., May 15, at 7 PM, followed by a panel discussion with Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg, Montana NORML's John Masterson, filmmaker Rebecca Richman Cohen and Rep. Diane Sands, moderated by former U.S. House Rep. Pat Williams. $7.

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