HELENA — 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.”
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.”
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.
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.”