18 months later, grim times for ex-pot providers
HELENA — When federal agents raided 26 Montana medical marijuana provider homes, businesses and warehouses in March 2011, prominent among those targeted were the owners of Montana Cannabis.
The four partners — Richard Flor, Chris Lindsey, Tom Daubert and Chris Williams — ran one of the state's largest pot businesses, with more than 300 registered customers. Montana Cannabis had locations across the state, a slick website and hundreds of leafy marijuana plants plainly visible through the windows of its massive warehouse on U.S. Highway 12 near Helena.
AP Photo/Matt Volz
This Sept. 6, photo shows Chris Williams standing in front of the U.S. District Courthouse in Helen, where he will go on trial later this month. Williams and his medical marijuana business partners are learning their fates 18 months after their Montana Cannabis shop was raided in March 2011.
Those four partners, like their industry, have faced grim times 18 months after the raids. Flor died in custody on Aug. 29, and a Nevada coroner discovered previously undiagnosed cancer along with heart and kidney problems. Flor's family said his medical complaints went untreated by his jailers.
Daubert, a lobbyist who helped draft Montana's 2004 voter-approved medical marijuana law, was sentenced Thursday to probation on a charge of conspiracy to maintain a drug-involved premises. Lindsey pleaded guilty that same day to the same charge.
The only one to not cut a deal with the government is Williams. He faces trial on Sept. 24 and he can't wait to tell his side of the story: that Montana Cannabis followed state medical marijuana laws, and his belief the federal raids were designed to influence the state Legislature, which was considering a repeal of medical pot at the time.
"My intention is to see this through," Williams said in a recent interview. "I know that what I was doing was right and I wasn't hurting anyone."
Federal prosecutors repeatedly refuse to comment on specific cases related to the raids. They have said the crackdown was on large-scale drug organizations that cultivated, manufactured, distributed or sold marijuana.
Even if the state has a medical marijuana law, the federal Controlled Substances Act, which prohibits the manufacture and distribution of marijuana, trumps that law, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Montana said in a statement earlier this year.
The federal government has not addressed allegations that the raids were timed in an attempt to influence state lawmakers who were debating a bill to repeal Montana's medical marijuana law.
Lawmakers passed the repeal bill, but Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed it. Legislators then passed another bill that banned pot providers from making a profit and put restrictions on who can qualify as a registered user. Portions of that new law are being challenged but the state has since seen the number of registered users and providers tumble.
The raids led to more than two dozen indictments, most of which were followed by guilty pleas by providers who said they believed they complied with state laws but did not want to risk a lengthy prison sentence. Charges that could carry 40 years in prison or more were whittled down to a few years or less in those deals.
The exception was Flor, who received a five-year sentence for running a medical marijuana operation out of his Miles City home with his wife and son. He was only four months into that sentence when he died.
The 68-year-old Flor had suffered from numerous physical and psychological ailments, and U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell had ordered him to be housed in a prison that could accommodate his medical needs.
Instead, Flor was detained from April until August in a private prison in Shelby, where he fell out of his bed and broke his clavicle, and where prison officials did not respond to his complaints of illness, daughter Kristin Flor said.
She arrived in Nevada the day after her father's heart attacks to find him on life support. He was beyond recovery and she made the decision to turn off the machines. Only after he was dead did authorities take off the shackles that bound her father to the bed, she said.
Kristin Flor had to break the news by phone to her mother, who is in an Arizona prison.
"I told my mom that he was still in shackles and her heart just broke," Flor said. "How dare they shackle my dad? He wasn't even free when he passed."
U.S. Marshals Service spokesman Dave Oney said Flor died of natural causes and there is no reason to believe his death could have been prevented in a federal medical facility.
Daubert received five years' probation from a different judge. Daubert had stepped away from the day-to-day operations of the business before it was raided, but he was still drawing a regular paycheck as a co-owner. His attorney, Peter Lacny, said U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen took his client's history and background into consideration in handing down the sentence.
Daubert has run a lobbying and public relations firm since 1985 and is best known as the director for Patients and Families United, a medical marijuana advocacy group, and helped draft Initiative 148, which passed in 2004 and made medical marijuana legal in Montana.
There are no conditions to Daubert's probation to keep him from re-entering the medical marijuana business. But that's not going to happen, Lacny said.
"He will not be involved in any medical marijuana business. That is clearly against federal law," the attorney said.
Lindsey's sentencing is Dec. 13 and he is hoping for a similar outcome to Daubert. Lindsey is an attorney and the head of the Montana Cannabis Industry Association, an advocacy group behind the legal challenge to the new medical marijuana law.
That leaves Williams, slated to go to trial at the end of the month.
He said he has not been allowed to talk to any of his partners, but their willingness to make plea agreements does not deter him from being the first medical marijuana provider in the state to take his case to trial.
"I can't take a plea. I don't fault my other partners for doing what they did. Everyone has their own benefit analysis. Everybody has their own moral clock. And mine says I need to stand before a jury of my peers and fight for what is right," he said.