Pubdate: Sun, 28 Oct 2012
Source: Helena Independent Record (MT)
Copyright: 2012 Helena Independent Record
Author: Eve Byron



Chris Williams Is a Complex Man

Former Medical Marijuana Provider Painted As 'Compassionate,' 'Intimidating'

As Chris Williams waited for a 12-member jury to decide his fate last 
month on eight marijuana-related charges, he was surprisingly calm 
for a man who knew he could be jailed for 85 years. He mentioned that 
he had taken a nap and was reading a book, "Ethics for a New 
Millennium" by the Dalai Lama.

"I was almost finished with it, but continued to reread some of the 
most enlightening chapters," Williams wrote in a letter from his cell 
at the Crossroads Correctional Center in Shelby. "The study of 
philosophy and religion has always interested me, even though I am 
not the most educated in either subject."

Williams, who readily admitted on the witness stand a month ago that 
he grew and distributed marijuana and owns a handgun and rifle, is 
the only man in Montana who has been convicted by a jury in federal 
court for his role as a medical marijuana "caregiver" under Montana 
state law. Of the roughly 25 other cases brought by the U.S. 
Attorney's office in the state, most, if not all of the others 
reached plea agreements in which the government agreed to drop the 
more serious charges in exchange for a guilty plea.

According to Williams' attorney, Michael Donahoe, the mean federal 
sentence for those medical marijuana providers was about 18 months 
and no sentence was longer than five years.

Yet Williams refused all plea bargain offers, including one from the 
government after his conviction on eight counts - conspiracy to 
manufacture and distribute marijuana, the manufacture of marijuana, 
two counts of possession with intent to distribute marijuana and four 
counts of possession of a firearm during a drug trafficking offense. 
The first three counts carry mandatory minimum sentences of five 
years. The four firearm counts are much stiffer penalties; the first 
conviction is a mandatory minimum of five years, and the three 
subsequent convictions are each mandatory minimums of 25 years, which 
must run consecutive to any other sentence.

Some call him foolish for refusing the offers; the most recent would 
have dropped all criminal charges except for the conspiracy and one 
firearm counts, likely resulting in a sentence of not more than 10 years.

"I never told him what to do, but I told him what I would do - take 
the (expletive) plea," said Eric Story, who met Williams when the two 
were working at a Big Sky restaurant at night and snowboarding during 
the day a decade ago. "That's the story though; he stands on his 
moral values. He believes in the United State's Constitution and the 
Montana Constitution and doesn't think what he was doing was 
necessarily wrong."

Williams is a tall man with a graying beard and close-cropped hair, 
who has long maintained that while medical marijuana is an integral 
part of his case, it's now come down to standing by his convictions. 
He believes that with electors in 17 states and Washington, D.C., 
approving medical marijuana laws, six states with pending initiatives 
and three states considering legalizing and regulating marijuana, now 
is the time for the federal government to heed the will of the populace.

"I have decided to fight the federal government because for me, not 
defending the things that I know are right is dishonorable," Williams 
wrote. "Every citizen has a responsibility to fight for what is 
right, even if it seems like the struggle will be lost.

"It is the power of the people to control this government that is 
supposed to protect us. If we shun this struggle, this government 
will control us instead of protecting us."

Another friend, Lars Forsberg, said Williams also thought that at 
some point, someone in the federal prosecutors' office would look at 
the actual situation and not the letter of the law.

"He had it stuck in his head that at some point the prosecution would 
involve an honest person who would look at the situation and say it 
was wrong and unconstitutional, and not what our country stands for," 
Forsberg said. "I told him that people are not always honest and in 
their minds you are doing something so wrong those people are willing 
to stick gun charges against you. But you'd be hard pressed to go 
into any building or house in Montana and not find a gun."

A Marine and a Deadhead

Like most people, Williams is a complex man. Some see him as a hero 
for standing up to the government; others see him as rightly 
convicted felon who was flouting the law of the land. He's often 
quiet and gentle, but is said to have a mean streak.

"Chris is a Gemini," said his former business partner, Tom Daubert. 
"He has a very gentle, compassionate side and a more mercurial side. 
He's very strong and big. Some people can find him intimidating 
depending on his mood."

Williams was born in Ashland, Ky., in 1973 to what he said was an 
abusive father who wasn't around much and a mother who was a union 
carpenter. He and his mom moved around a lot due to her jobs, and 
from kindergarten through his senior year he attended 16 different schools.

Williams learned to garden in his preteen and high school years when 
the family lived on a farm in the South, initially with no indoor 
plumbing or running water. During that time, his mother and some 
family members grew cannabis.

"Even though our family was Baptist, my mom always taught me that if 
God created it and it grew from the ground, it was meant for the use 
of man. This is a value that I hold to this day," Williams wrote. 
"Even though I am practicing Buddhism, I still hold onto some of my 
old Christian beliefs.

"I do strive to be a simple man. Most of the time the world makes 
that a hard thing to 'be.' I feel the most at peace when I am 
gardening, fly-fishing or hunting."

He lived with his aunt and uncle in Georgia for the last three years 
of high school, which is when Williams first developed an interest in 
the Bill of Rights and the founding of the nation.

"During my junior year of high school the original Bill of Rights was 
being shown at the Cobb County Civic Center," Williams wrote. "I 
still don't know what attracted me to the document, but I went down

to see it."

While he was interested in civics, Williams didn't care for other 
aspects of school. He was expelled for fighting and then graduated 
from an alternative school. He was hit with an "intent to distribute" 
drug charge, which he said was later dropped. He hitchhiked to New 
Orleans for Mardi Gras, eventually ending up in Houston and enlisting 
in the Marine Corps.

"Unfortunately, I was not a good fit for the Marine Corps," Williams 
wrote. "I still regret not deploying and entering the Fleet Marine 
Force. I was given an uncharacterized discharge within a year of 
joining. After suffering two injuries during training and showing up 
late for duties, I was given an option out."

He continued to travel around the country, hitchhiking and hopping 
trains, working construction and odd jobs. He went to Grateful Dead 
shows - getting arrested once for distribution of LSD, with the 
charge again dropped - Rainbow Family gatherings and other 
counter-culture events. He had a son, and they relocated to Montana in 1999.

"I moved to Montana because it represented the true American dream," 
Williams wrote. "Montana has always represented true freedom; not 
because of the laws or history but because of the land. The amount of 
wild untamed land in Montana has always felt like the heart of true 
freedom and liberty."

Medical marijuana

In 2004, Montanans passed Initiative 148 with 62 percent of the vote. 
The law removed state-level criminal penalties on the use, possession 
and cultivation of marijuana by patients who possess written 
documentation from their physicians authorizing the medical use of 
marijuana. Patients or their primary caregivers could possess up to 
six marijuana plants, and the law established a confidential 
state-run patient registry that issued identification cards to 
qualifying patients.

Small businesses were established, including one by Richard and 
Sherry Flor and their son Justin. The federal Drug Enforcement Agency 
kept an eye on their business beginning in 2007, and agents purchased 
a gun and marijuana from them, even though they weren't qualified as 
medical marijuana patients.

But the investigation into the Flors' business was "tabled" by the 
DEA in December 2009. Earlier that year, U.S. Attorney General Eric 
Holder announced at a news conference that his agency no longer would 
prosecute people in states with medical marijuana laws as long as 
they were in compliance with those laws. That was followed in October 
2009 by the so-called "Ogden Memo" by Assistant U.S. Attorney David 
Ogden, who told federal prosecutors that with their limited 
resources, they should use their discretion and only go after 
significant marijuana traffickers.

Meanwhile, Chris Lindsey, Tom Daubert, Williams and Richard Flor had 
met to discuss how to set up a legitimate medical marijuana facility 
in Helena. Lindsey, a former public defender, was in charge of 
drafting a legal "growers agreement" for what would become Montana 
Cannabis, LLC. Williams was the farmer; he already had a greenhouse 
in Three Forks. Daubert, known as a principled lobbyist who had 
helped write the 2004 initiative, was involved to ensure they 
complied with the law. Flor was in since he already had a fairly 
substantial marijuana growing operation.

While Flor remained in Miles City, the others set up shop at the old 
State Nursery just west of Helena on Highway 12 and opened a 
dispensary nearby. They also opened a Billings dispensary and were 
driving throughout Montana to supply their patients.

Daubert said they grew too fast, as the number of medical marijuana 
cardholders skyrocketed to around 30,000 Montanans after the release 
of the Ogden memo.

"We weren't the biggest business in the state, but we had enough 
employees where I hadn't met some of them. We got to the point where 
it wasn't possible to be certain one way or another whether we were 
still in compliance with the law," Daubert said. "Our business model 
was horrible. We shouldn't have gone statewide."

Still, they invited law enforcement into their operations, opened 
bank accounts, hired about 30 employees and paid taxes.

But in November 2010, Daubert ended his working relationship with 
Montana Cannabis. He said the first year he hadn't made much money 
and he was busy with his lobbying practice. Daubert also felt he 
wasn't doing as good of a job as he wanted.

Still, he wrestled with his decision for months, fearing that his 
leaving would somehow undermine what they had tried to accomplish.

"I thought it would be misinterpreted if I unplugged to some 
legislators," Daubert said.

Another reason for leaving is Daubert didn't like the direction 
Williams was taking the company. Williams wanted to remove curtains 
from the windows at the greenhouse to let in more light, but it made 
Montana Cannabis much more visual. Williams also wanted to advertise 
the business at the nursery, which was on a major highway.

Williams and Daubert also were having more personal conflicts. In 
court documents, Daubert said Williams had a mean streak and he 
disapproved of the way Williams conducted himself business-wise.

"He was not always easy to work with," Daubert said. "My sense is a 
lot of our employees, over time, developed strained relationships 
with him. But he's extremely good at growing high-quality, clean, 
safe cannabis and he cared very much about the patients we serviced."

Lindsey enjoyed Williams' company, saying that he's easygoing and the 
type of person people enjoy being around.

"I don't think there's anything he can't do," Lindsey said. "He leads 
by getting out in front; he doesn't call the shots from behind. In 
that sense, I'm not surprised he was willing to see this case 
through, even when it became clear where it was going."


The end of Montana Cannabis came on a cool spring morning. On March 
14, 2011, federal agents raided dispensaries and marijuana nurseries 
throughout Montana. In a video taken that day, Williams said agents 
came in with guns drawn but were respectful of the staff members.

"They were doing the king's deed for the king's dime," he said.

Williams and his former partners weren't indicted until a year later, 
on March 22, 2012.

Flor, Lindsey and Daubert all agreed to plead guilty to 
marijuana-related charges if the gun charges - with their mandatory 
minimums - were dropped. Daubert notes that one of the ironies is 
that they had the guns on the premises based on a recommendation from 
a member of a state drug task force.

Flor received a five-year prison sentence, but died in jail from 
several medical problems. Daubert received five years of probation. 
Lindsey is awaiting sentencing on Jan. 4.

Williams is set to appear before U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen 
on Nov. 7 to find out if he can be released from jail while his 
attorney files documents with the Ninth Judicial Court of Appeals.

Donahoe argues that his client didn't have a fair trial, since he 
wasn't allowed to make any reference to the Montana medical marijuana 
law. He says that between Holder's statements and the Ogden memo, the 
members of Montana Cannabis thought they would be safe from prosecution.

" ... by telling the American public that medical marijuana would be 
tolerated in those states with medical marijuana laws, the government 
deliberately altered the settled expectations set by Congress in the 
Controlled Substances Act," Donahoe wrote.

He also alleges that the federal government is illegally trying to 
interfere in state rights by prosecuting these cases, and giving 
defendants little or no choice in agreeing to plea to lesser charges.

"Speaking bluntly, medical marijuana cases in Montana were 
intentionally overcharged to both force the state to change its laws 
and in order to confront the defendants with the Hobson's choice of 
some manageable prison sentence of somewhere around one year or less, 
as opposed to mandatory minimum sentences involving decades in 
prison," Donahoe wrote. "Obviously, most people when confronted with 
a choice between a trial and 10 to 20 year prison term ... feel 
compelled to opt for the latter."

The U.S. Attorney's Montana office rarely comments on ongoing cases, 
and declined to do so for this article. However, during courtroom 
proceedings and in filed documents, they made it clear that these are 
straw man arguments in their opinion, misinterpreting the facts to 
make a point.

They note that a jury of Williams' peers convicted him after his 
four-day trial of substantive drug trafficking crimes. These are 
violations of the federal Controlled Substances Act, which lists 
marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug - as dangerous as heroin and without 
any medical benefit. They say testimony at the trial revealed guns 
were used to further the drug trafficking.

The future

Williams knows that he may never be a free man again, able to hunt, 
fish and snowboard with his son, who's now a teenager at Montana 
State University and hopes to become a pilot. Yet he remains 
optimistic about the future.

"I do have some faith left in this system," Williams wrote. " ... My 
hope is that this battle, my criminal case can set a new precedent. 
No one should have to go through this struggle for growing a plant 
and helping other people."
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