HELENA - The only Montana medical marijuana provider to reject a deal with the government after his business was raided in last year's federal crackdown appeared at trial Monday with two former partners who did make deals testifying against him.
The drug trafficking and firearms trial of Chris Williams opened in Helena with Tom Daubert and Chris Lindsey saying the three of them formed Montana Cannabis with two other men in 2009.
Williams' attorney, Michael Donahoe, tried to impress upon jurors that Montana Cannabis was set up as a legitimate business that paid taxes and entered into contracts. Donahoe was limited by a previous order by U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen prohibiting Williams from defending himself by saying he was complying with state medical marijuana laws.
Christensen's jury instructions say state laws are irrelevant to the federal charges Williams faces, and assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Thaggard attempted to halt Donahoe's questioning every time it started to head in that direction.
Lindsey and Daubert testified that Williams oversaw the company's grow operations in Three Forks and later in Helena, which expanded from 60 marijuana plants to hundreds growing in the former State Nursery visible from U.S. Highway 12 just outside the city. Lindsey said he and Williams would take shifts guarding the plants and overseeing the warehouse until Lindsey left the operation in 2010 after a dispute with the other owners.
Both occasionally wore pistols on their hips, and there were long guns in the office area, Daubert and Lindsey said.
"We always had to have a person there, and Mr. Williams and I split that responsibility," Lindsey said. "There were pistols. I do know at various times there was a shotgun. There may have been more than one."
Daubert and Lindsey described the formation of Montana Cannabis as an idea that originated with Eric Billings, who left the company soon after it opened. Miles City medical marijuana provider Richard Flor was involved in the startup, bringing in his backyard grow operation. Williams already running was a small grow operation in Three Forks, and Lindsey was a Helena attorney.
They solicited advice from Daubert, who had led the campaign initiative to legalize medical marijuana in 2004. By the end of that initial two-hour meeting, Daubert said he wanted in the partnership.
The business operated with dispensaries in Helena, Missoula, Billings and Flor's Miles City home, and provided to at least 300 users at its peak.
"The plan was to go where our customers were. So it wasn't planned to be set up in one particular area, but to go where needed," Lindsey said.
It was one of the largest marijuana businesses busted in the March 2011 federal raids of 26 homes, offices and warehouses across Montana. Some 950 marijuana plants were confiscated from the Helena greenhouse that Williams ran.
The raids signaled the beginning of the end to Montana's booming medical marijuana industry. Providers started shutting their doors, hoping they weren't next. Soon after, state lawmakers passed a bill making medical marijuana illegal once more. That was vetoed by Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
In the closing days of the 2011 session, legislators passed another bill that barred providers from making profits from selling the drugs or distributing to more than three users. The Montana Supreme Court recently upheld a challenge to that ban.
Since the raids, more than two dozen providers have been arrested, with the great majority of them taking plea deals with the government to reduce potential prison time. Daubert has received probation for his guilty plea to conspiracy to maintain a drug premises, while Flor received five years in prison for the same charge.
Flor died in the custody of U.S. Marshals in August while being transferred to a new prison.
Lindsey is set to plead guilty to the same charge in October. He and Daubert were promised favorable sentence recommendations for testifying against Williams.
The trial is expected to last five days and is being heard by a jury of 10 women and three men. One will be designated as an alternate once the evidence is heard.
Williams showed no emotion as his former partners described the business and none when Daubert gave him a shrug as he walked away from the witness stand.
Williams had planned to subpoena several journalists about statements from Attorney General Eric Holder and other government officials that made Williams believe he would not be prosecuted under federal law for selling medical marijuana.
Christensen rejected those planned subpoenas in an order Friday and said Williams could not claim Holder and the others entrapped him because "he was not directly induced by government agents to manufacture or distribute marijuana."
Williams has previously said he wanted to go to trial and tell his story.
"I know that what I was doing was right and I wasn't hurting anyone," he told The Associated Press in an interview earlier this month.