By Bryce J. Renninger | Indiewire September 21, 2012 at 5:26PM
When Tom Daubert was set to be sentenced earlier this month on federal drug charges, he didn't know if he'd be spending up to 20 years in prison or if the judge would be more lenient and he'd simply be given probation. In the end, US District Court Judge Dana Lewis Christensen, an Obama appointee, sentenced Daubert to five years of probation after Daubert pled guilty to conspiracy to maintain drug-related premises. Part of Daubert's defense was a documentary film.
Rebecca Richman Cohen's "Code of the West," which debuted at this year's SXSW, tracks both sides of a series of state referenda on medical marijuana laws. Daubert, as a leading advocate for patients and growers, featured prominently in the film.
Daubert is a drug policy reform activist who also owned the medical marijuana company Montana Cannabis. His business, which grew medical marijuana for state-legal patients, was recently raided by federal authorities after an increase in federal raids in 2011 under President Obama and his Department of Justice. Montana, you see, is one of 17 states (and the District of Columbia) that has made medical marijuana legal. Marijuana, however, is still a Schedule I drug under federal law. Despite state laws that approve the drug for various medical reasons, it's still illegal to possess, use, buy, sell or grow marijuana according to federal law.
Included in the film were scenes in which Daubert showed off his facilities to state law enforcement official and politicians. Those portions of "Code of the West" were given to the judge during the sentencing stage as part of the defense strategy of Daubert's lawyer William Taylor, who also defended IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Khan. That clip is available to view below:
The film, which follows leading advocates from both sides of the issue and has been seen by each to no major complaints, was also made available to Judge Christensen in its entirety. Speaking with Indiewire, Cohen said that she was happy to have her film used in Daubert's defense.
The film presented us with some really difficult ethical questions. When we went into film his operation, we knew the feds can bust medical marijuana growers at any time. We knew the people we were filming were okay with us being there. We had their informed consent, and we thought it was an important story to tell. We didn't know if the film had brought undue media attention to what they were doing. We were very concerned.
On the subject of being brought into the court, Cohen said, "We imagined we were documenting the lawmaking process. We didn't anticipate that the film could be used in a persuasive way in a court of law [that Daubert was transparent about his operations in accordance with state law]."
In a statement to Indiewire, Taylor, Daubert's lawyer, explained:
All I think we can really say is that it is rare when you are able to show a judge that the defendant not only did not try to conceal his conduct but actively sought to make sure the public was aware of what he was doing. In that connection, the film was a good exhibit. It was not the only good exhibit, so it is hard to give it an accurate weight, but it was certainly an important part of an overall picture.
The political impact of the film doesn't stop at the court's door. Cohen not only programmed a theatrical tour of the film in four cities this May with the help of the Big Sky Film Institute, she has since partnered with the Montana ACLU to do a series of 20 screenings in small towns and public libraries in a civic engagement campaign about drug policy reform.
"Montana's a small state [in terms of population]," Cohen said. "There are more cows than people, and a small group of people can change the political process. I think folks are working to grow a coalition, to spread accurate information about what's going on. There's been a lot of misinformation. People supporting repeal of the laws were saying that there has been a fourfold increase of teen marijuana use, which was not true." Advocates from both sides of the issue, as well as local government officials, have joined Cohen on her state tour.
There is urgency to her mission of bringing about a conversation. "Most of the main spokespeople are facing federal indictments now," Cohen explained. While Daubert's partner Tom Flor died while in federal custody earlier this year, two of Daubert's other colleagues, Chris Lindsey and Chris Williams, have Lindsey has yet to be sentenced. Williams' trial is next week.
In 2009, the federal government said that going after the medical marijuana industry would be a low priority, but 2011 marked a sea change in enforcement policy, with raids all over the country.
Cohen added, "The Obama administration has ducked from answering these questions. Maybe there are a few rogue attorneys, but it does look like the directives are coming from the top. Eric Holder's Department of Justice should answer questions about how it's decided to enforce marijuana laws in medical marijuana states."
The trailer for "Code of the West," which will screen at the Camden International Film Festival next week, is provided below:
Correction: An earlier version of this article said that a clip from the film was shown in court. The film was submitted to Judge Christensen in the case, but no portion of it was shown in court.