Jacob Sullum

Chris Williams, a Montana medical marijuana grower, faces at least five years in federal prison when he is sentenced on Feb. 1. The penalty seems unduly severe, especially because his business openly supplied marijuana to patients who were allowed to use it under state law.

Yet five years is a cakewalk compared to the sentence Williams originally faced, which would have kept the 38-year-old father behind bars for the rest of his life. The difference is due to an extremely unusual post-conviction agreement that highlights the enormous power prosecutors wield as a result of mandatory minimum sentences so grotesquely unjust that in this case even they had to admit it.

Of more than two dozen Montana medical marijuana providers who were arrested following federal raids in March 2011, Williams is the only one who insisted on his right to a trial. For that, he paid a steep price.

Tom Daubert, one of Williams' partners in Montana Cannabis, which had dispensaries in four cities, pleaded guilty to maintaining drug-involved premises and got five years of probation. Another partner, Chris Lindsey, took a similar deal and is expected to receive similar treatment. Both testified against Williams at his trial last September.

Williams' third partner, Richard Flor, pleaded guilty to the same charge but did not testify against anyone. Flor, a sickly 68-year-old suffering from multiple ailments, died four months into a five-year prison term.

For a while, it seemed that Williams, who rejected a plea deal because he did not think he had done anything wrong and because he wanted to challenge federal interference with Montana's medical marijuana law, also was destined to die in prison. Since marijuana is prohibited for all purposes under federal law, he was not allowed even to discuss the nature of his business in front of the jury, so his conviction on the four drug charges he faced, two of which carried five-year mandatory minimums, was more or less inevitable.

Stretching Williams' sentence from mindlessly harsh to mind-bogglingly draconian, each of those marijuana counts was tied to a charge of possessing a firearm during a drug trafficking offense, based on guns at the Helena grow operation that Williams supervised and at Flor's home in Miles City, which doubled as a dispensary. Federal law prescribes a five-year mandatory minimum for the first such offense and 25 years for each subsequent offense, with the sentences to run consecutively.


Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
 
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