Code of the West: Film Review

Code of the West - H - 2013
This timely documentary about medical marijuana laws provides a microcosm of the social forces dividing the country.

Rebecca Richman Cohen's documentary chronicles the political battle over Montana's pioneering medical marijuana law.

The 2010 political battles that resulted in the repeal of Montana’s pioneering medical marijuana law is the subject of Rebecca Richman Cohen’s timely documentary. Chronicling the efforts of the warring parties in clear-eyed but not unemotional fashion, Code of the West provides a microcosm of the political and social divides facing the country.

The emotion is mainly provided by the presence of Lori Burnam, an elderly cancer and emphysema sufferer who declares that marijuana is the only thing that relieves her pain. Lamenting the decision that required her to shift to morphine, she provides a very human face to the controversial issue.

Chiefly representing the pro-marijuana side is Tom Daubert, a lawyer and lobbyist who is described as the chief architect of the state’s original medical marijuana law. He later became a partner in Montana Cannabis, one of the largest medical marijuana dispensers in the state. His company is but one of many that sprung up in what would become a billion dollar business.

The forces working to repeal the law maintain that much of that business derives from recreational use, with teenagers in particular danger. A  television commercial produced by one organization dubbed “Safe Community, Safe Kids” makes the case in typically dramatic fashion, ignoring the statistics indicating that marijuana use among teens in the state actually declined after the law was passed.

As with many such documentaries, Code of the West becomes somewhat bogged down in its chronicling of the complex political battles that ensued. The state’s House of Representatives voted to repeal the law, while its Senate upheld it, only to later reverse their decision.

It’s hard not to see where the filmmaker’s sympathies lie, although she isn’t above such sly touches as showing footage of a rally organized by NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) featuring demonstrators holding up such signs as “No Plant Left Behind.” That is, when they’re not busily chomping down on pepperoni pizza.  

Proponents of medical marijuana will not find this a feel-good film. After the law was repealed, Daubert was indicted on federal drug charges, avoiding jail time only thanks to a sympathetic judge. But several of his colleagues were not so fortunate. It all seems a terrible waste, since -- as one of the medical marijuana users points out, the law’s repeal essentially resulted in thousands of the state’s citizens immediately becoming “outlaws.”

Opened March 29 (IFP, DCTV)

Production: Racing Horse Productions, Naked Edge Films

Director: Rebecca Richman Cohen

Screenwriters/producers: Rebecca Richman Cohen, Francisco Bello

Executive producer: David Menschel

Director of photography: Joshua Z. Weinstein

Editor: Francisco Bello

Composer: Max Avery Lichtenstein

Not rated, 75 min.