HELENA — A year after agents raided his medical marijuana operation in a sweeping sting that shut down pot providers across Montana, Chris Williams is stepping up his challenge of the federal operation that changed the face of the industry in the state.
Williams, a former co-owner of the now-defunct Montana Cannabis, and more than a dozen other providers are taking a constitutional fight over the federal crackdown to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after a district judge dismissed the case in January. He also is preparing for his own possible arrest related to last year's raids.
"I see these raids and the way that our state government allowed them to happen, I'd say they've really taken a lot of faith from people, faith they had in state government," Williams said.
The past year has seen the greatest change in Montana's medical marijuana industry since state voters approved the medical use of the drug in 2004. The March 2011 raids resulted in the prosecution of dozens of providers, shut down their businesses and caused many others to shut their doors out of fear that they would be next.
After the raids, the state Legislature passed a law that severely restricts the distribution of medical marijuana and makes it more difficult to qualify for as a patient. An advocacy group is challenging that law in court and at the polls, and a state judge has temporarily blocked key provisions from taking effect.
But the raids coupled with the new law have had the effect of placing a chill over the industry. The number of registered medical marijuana users has dropped 54 percent since May 31, nose-diving from 31,522 users to 14,364 at the end of February.
The number of registered providers has declined even more steeply, from 4,650 last May to 422 on Feb. 29.
Proponents of the changes say the changes have reined in an industry that was out of control and allowed people to receive registration cards without proper medical examinations.
But Williams, the Montana Cannabis Industry Association and various marijuana providers who have joined as plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the federal government say the heavy handed governmental approach has countermanded the will of the voters when they approved the original law.
"Our medical marijuana program really isn't functioning anymore," he said.
The U.S. attorney's office did not have comment Friday, spokeswoman Jessica Fehr said. Federal prosecutors have declined to comment on the raids and Montana's medical marijuana industry other than a single statement in March 2011 that the searches were part of a long-term drug trafficking investigation.
Montana Cannabis was one of the largest medical marijuana providers in the state, distributing to about 300 people with locations in Helena, Missoula, Billings and Miles City before the March 14, 2011, raids shut down the business for good.
Williams called that the lowest point of his life. He lost his business and his home, but things began to look up when he found a lawyer who agreed to take his case and challenge the raids executed against 30 homes, businesses, warehouses and bank accounts across the state.
Several other marijuana providers joined his lawsuit, as did the Montana Cannabis Industry Association, which also is suing to overturn the new restrictive state law and is backing a referendum asking voters to repeal the law in November's election.
Williams and the others plaintiffs faced a setback in January when U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ruled against their claims that the raids were unconstitutional and went against a voter-approved initiative that allowed them to grow and produce the drug for medical consumption.
Distributing marijuana is illegal under federal law, and Molloy said state law does not shield medical marijuana providers from federal prosecution. He cited a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said the supremacy clause applies in medical marijuana cases.
The supremacy clause says that federal law prevails if there is any conflict between state and federal statutes.
Williams and the other plaintiffs have filed a notice of appeal with the 9th Circuit. He is optimistic.
"I think looking at what we have, it's a blessing that (Molloy) did that. It saves us time and money and sends us right up to someone else instead of having to go through the process of Molloy's courtroom," Williams said.
Williams, who said he no longer works in medical marijuana and is starting up a nonprofit civil rights group, believes he may still be arrested for his role in Montana Cannabis.
Williams' partners in the business were Richard Flor and Tom Daubert, a medical marijuana advocate who was a leader in the 2004 initiative. Flor is the only partner who was arrested, and he, along with his wife and son, pleaded guilty to federal drug charges.
Like Flor, every other medical marijuana provider prosecuted in the raids has pleaded guilty in exchange for lighter sentences, but Williams said he wants to have his day in court if he is arrested.
"The main concern for me is that I will be looking at 40 years in prison because I'm not going to plead guilty. I want to go to trial," he said.