HELENA — A jury on Thursday convicted a medical marijuana provider of drug trafficking and firearms charges, upholding the U.S. government's raids of state-regulated pot dispensaries in its first test at trial.
The provider, Chris Williams, was barred by the trial judge from making the case that he and Montana Cannabis followed the state medical marijuana law that voters approved in 2004. U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen ruled state laws were irrelevant in the case involving alleged violations of the federal Controlled Substances Act.
So Williams all but conceded the federal drug violations of which he is accused — conspiracy and the manufacture, possession and distribution of marijuana. He took the stand Wednesday and told jurors he was the "farmer" for Montana Cannabis' grow operation in Three Forks and then Helena, from where the drug was distributed to registered users across the state.
"It would be foolish of me to stand here and tell you that Mr. Williams wasn't in the business of growing marijuana. He was," defense attorney Michael Donahoe told jurors in his closing statement Thursday.
Donahoe instead focused on the four firearms charges against Williams, attempting unsuccessfully to persuade jurors to dismiss them.
The jury deliberated for nearly six hours before reaching a guilty verdict on all eight counts against Williams. Marshals took then Williams into custody.
Williams said he hopes to resurrect his state law versus federal law argument in an appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
"I am willing to risk my life for my view of the Constitution," he told The Associated Press before the verdict.
A sentencing date has not yet been set, and the jury was told to return to court Friday to hear evidence on claims of monetary forfeiture.
Williams' case is the only one to go to trial after the government raided 26 medical marijuana provider homes, offices and business on March 14, 2011, in a crackdown on large Montana grow operations and dispensaries. The investigation began as the Montana medical marijuana registry started swelling by thousands of people per month following a 2009 Department of Justice memo that suggested the government would not prosecute individuals who were following state law.
The raids drove many providers out of business or underground, and a state law passed months later banned providers from receiving any compensation for their services or distributing to more than three registered users. The state Supreme Court earlier this month upheld that provision of the law.
Besides Williams, all the cases the government has pursued in more than 25 indictments resulting from the raids have ended with plea agreements. Medical marijuana providers, including three of Williams' partners, have said they believed they were following state law. They opted to take the deals because they didn't believe they would win their cases if they couldn't say in court that they were following state laws.
Williams is the only one to refuse to make a deal, and he had planned to argue that state law should take precedent over the Controlled Substances Act. But Christensen barred him from making that argument and from making a defense that Williams was entrapped by conflicting statements from federal officials on medical marijuana.
During the raids, agents found two pistols and a shotgun in the Helena greenhouse, along with another pistol and three rifles in a camper behind the building. Prosecutors said those guns, along with guns found at Montana Cannabis partner Richard Flor's Miles City Home, were there to protect the plants and transactions.
Prosecutors charged Williams with four counts of possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug crime.
Donahoe argued the guns at the Helena greenhouse belonged to employees and were used for their own protection, and Williams had no knowledge of Flor's guns.
"The guns were possessed for the innocent and lawful purpose of self-protection and the protection of others," Donahoe said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Thaggard said there is nothing wrong with having a gun, but it's impermissible when it's coupled with a drug trafficking crime. The only reason the employees felt they needed protection was because they were surrounded by illegal drugs, he said.
Williams can't simply engage in criminal conduct and then claim to not know what was going on, Thaggard said.
"The defendant may have been a farmer, he may have grown something, but what he did was illegal under federal law," he said.
Flor died in the custody of U.S. marshals in August after pleading guilty to conspiracy to maintain a drug-involved premises and receiving a five-year sentence.
Williams' other two partners, Tom Daubert and Chris Lindsey, made plea deals with prosecutors and testified against Williams during the trial.