HELENA — A Montana medical marijuana provider staring down an 80-year prison sentence has become something of a martyr among pot advocates, but he's not finding much support for his constitutional challenge of the federal raids that landed him in jail.
Chris Williams was the only provider among those indicted after the 2011 raids on more than a dozen medical marijuana operations across Montana who rejected multiple plea deals and insisted on a jury trial on the eight drug trafficking and weapons charges he faced.
Williams also is the lead plaintiff in a civil lawsuit that claims he and the other providers were following Montana's medical marijuana laws and the raids were an unconstitutional usurpation of local government and police powers by the federal government.
Williams lost both cases in a one-two punch. In January, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy dismissed the civil lawsuit, saying the federal Controlled Substances Act prevails over Montana's laws because of the Constitution's Supremacy Clause.
Then in September, Williams was found guilty on all eight criminal counts after the jury was prevented from hearing anything about Montana's medical marijuana laws.
Now Williams faces 80 years or more in prison when he is sentenced on the criminal charges Jan. 4. His case has drawn the attention and outrage of pro-medical marijuana advocates who say he is the victim of overzealous prosecution, and an online White House petition asking President Barack Obama to pardon Williams has gathered more than 18,800 signatures in eight days.
Meanwhile, Williams' attorney in the civil lawsuit has taken the constitutional challenge of the raids to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Attorney Paul Livingston said in a recent interview that for all the attention Williams has received in his criminal case, his civil case has been ignored by Montana's marijuana advocates and the attorneys who defended other indicted marijuana providers.
"He has been made a martyr," Livingston said. "I just don't understand how it has been ignored as it is."
Williams' constitutional challenge says he and the other provider plaintiffs were running their medical marijuana operations openly, honestly and in compliance with state law. When federal agents raided those operations to enforce the Controlled Substances Act, which lists marijuana as a Schedule I drug, the government interfered with the rights and powers given to the states by the Constitution's 10th Amendment, they claim.
That amendment says powers not granted to the federal government by the Constitution and not prohibited by the states are reserved to the states or the people.
Livingston said Judge Molloy should have held a trial on the lawsuit instead of dismissing the claim outright for lack of a claim. Molloy said in his ruling, "We are all bound by federal law, like it or not."
The appeal has yet to be scheduled for hearing before the 9th Circuit.
Just one medical marijuana advocacy group, the Montana Cannabis Industry Association, has filed court documents in support of the appeal. Association president Chris Lindsey said his organization is likely not to become more involved than that.
Lindsey, who was Williams' partner in Montana Cannabis and was convicted in a plea deal with federal prosecutors, said the group's focus and resources are tied up in a separate lawsuit that aims to revoke medical marijuana restrictions passed by the state Legislature last year.
"I think it's a worthy effort, but the MTCIA decided to focus its attention on the case pending (in state court)," Lindsey said. "There's only so much we can really afford to get involved in."
Others say it is quixotic to hope for a court ruling such as the one Williams and Livingston are seeking, and that say other avenues may be more effective, such as the voter initiatives passed in Washington and Colorado allowing the recreational use of marijuana.
Robert Raich, a California attorney who brought two medical marijuana cases that were rejected by the Supreme Court, said he has concluded from his own experience that marijuana laws won't be changed through the judicial process.
"The War on Drugs is too sacrosanct a sacred cow for the courts to weigh in favor," Raich said. "I think we can make better progress by doing something other than filing lawsuits."
But he said he is sympathetic to Williams' plight and called the marijuana crackdown in Montana the harshest among the states.
"Montana is the worst," he said. "The federal government has attacked medical cannabis with a vengeance in Montana more than any other state."
Livingston said he will keep pressing forward with the appeal, even if there is no financial support and his lead plaintiff is in prison. He believes the appeal ultimately will be successful and Williams will be vindicated.
"It's a very solid case, it is a case that needs to be decided and I think everyone would agree once they learn the facts of what happened," Livingston said.