HELENA — Federal prosecutors are appealing the sentences of a former University of Montana quarterback and three other medical-marijuana providers who were convicted in the largest drug-trafficking investigation in state history.
The U.S. attorney’s office has filed notices with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that it will challenge the sentences handed down to four of the 33 marijuana providers in which prosecutors sought longer prison terms.
U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter acknowledged in an Associated Press interview in May that it’s the judges’ job to impose sentences, but he has decided to appeal the sentences in certain cases.
“There are instances where we don’t necessarily agree with the sentence, and what we can do is have the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals review those sentences to see if they are within the statutory framework or proper, given the circumstances and evidence,” Cotter said.
The most recent challenge, filed Wednesday, appeals the sentence given to former UM quarterback Jason Washington, who was convicted this spring of conspiracy to manufacture and distribute marijuana and possession with intent to distribute marijuana.
U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen sentenced Washington to two years in prison followed by four years of supervised release. Prosecutors had proposed a five-year prison sentence after alleging Washington ran a major trafficking ring that supplied marijuana across much of Western Montana.
Washington, who was quarterback for the Griz in 2006, had argued he was following the state’s medical marijuana law. It was the same case made by most of the marijuana providers indicted in the investigation, but prosecutors successfully argued that federal law banning the distribution and use of marijuana trumps state law — and that none of the providers followed Montana law, anyway.
“We believe the judge got it right in sentencing Mr. Washington,” said Washington’s attorney, Kwame Manley. “This is a medical-marijuana case. We all understand federal law prohibits medical marijuana, but Mr. Washington does not deserve to be in prison for the amount of time that the federal government is asking.”
Federal prosecutors already have filed appeals in the sentences of Belgrade providers Randy Leibenguth and Lucas Mulvaugh, plus that of Helena provider Paul Schmidt.
Leibenguth received three months in prison after a recommendation of five years and 10 months.
Mulvaugh was sentenced to 45 days in prison after prosecutors recommended a sentence of eight years and a month. Schmidt was sentenced to a year in prison after prosecutors recommended five years and 10 months.
The appellate court has not taken action in any of the challenges.
Other sentences that prosecutors have declined to appeal range from no prison time to five years.
Thirty-one of the 33 convictions were the result of plea agreements between the defendants and prosecutors. The judge in each case decided the sentences after hearing recommendations from each side.
Washington and Chris Williams of Helena were the only two providers to go to trial. Juries convicted both men, and Williams received five years in prison.
Cotter decided not to challenge the sentence of Tom Daubert, a longtime lobbyist, and attorney Chris Lindsey, both of whom were partners with Williams in Montana Cannabis, one of the state’s largest medical-marijuana providers.
Neither Daubert nor Lindsey received jail time, while Williams and a fourth partner, Richard Flor, each received five-year sentences. Flor died in prison last year.
Cotter declined to comment on why those sentences were not appealed.
The federal investigation into large marijuana providers and a 2011 restrictive state medical-marijuana law have resulted in thousands of medical pot providers have gone out of business, and the number of registered users have fallen to less than a quarter of their 2011 numbers. The state law is being challenged in court.