The story arc of medical marijuana in Montana couldn't have been more dramatic had it been written by a novelist.
Voters pass an initiative legalizing medical marijuana in 2004. Patients' suffering is relieved by its use. Enterprising businessmen and women, bolstered by state law and a pledge from the Obama administration that it won't pursue those following state medical marijuana laws, build companies to serve the growing demand. These businesses drive a new economic engine that fuels the construction industry and pumps money into local economies.
Use grows, and some begin to complain that people are registering as patients to smoke pot recreationally. A backlash begins to develop and some begin work to repeal or tighten state laws.
As state lawmakers seek to undo the law voters created, federal agents converge on dozens of medical marijuana businesses in the winter of 2011, destroying crops, seizing assets and arresting owners. These people face the prospect of years -- or even decades -- of jail time, and other medical marijuana businesses close, leaving patients without their medicine. The numbers of registered medical marijuana patients plummets.
Documentarian Rebecca Richman Cohen explores the saga of medical marijuana in Montana in her film Code of the West, which began a series of Montana screenings and panel discussions last night in Missoula. It follows the events of 2011 through the eyes of both medical marijuana's supporters and opponents.
"As we followed the trajectory of three medical marijuana bills in Montana, we couldn't help but notice another debate taking place in the Montana Capitol. Halfway through the legislative session, the President of the Senate proposed a bill that would memorialize the "Code of the West" as the official state code of ethics," says Cohen in a statement about the film. "For all the nostalgia inherent in such an idea, the marijuana debate we chronicled suggests that a single code belies deep divisions in society. Which argument is more true to Montana's pioneering spirit? Those who are pushing the frontiers of drug policy reform? Or those who are trying to guard their communities against marijuana advertisements that mar the view of the Rockies?"
What we're lacking now is an ending to the story.
Even as medical marijuana supporters gather signatures to repeal restrictive law passed in Montana in 2011, growers continue to face prosecution and many are being sentenced to federal prison time.
As Cohen says, "The question of course is not whether to live by a code, but rather whose code: the pious, the libertarian, the entrepreneur, the local, the regional, the national? If Montana's medical marijuana debate tells us anything, it is this: there are many codes of the west and the way in which they are reconciled - or not - has profound implications for the way we live."
You can catch the movie at several more screenings over the coming week -- tonight and Monday in Bozeman, Thursday and Friday in Helena, Tuesday in Billings and again in Missoula on Wednesday, May 23.