At a time when the world is rethinking its drug policies large and small, one state rises to the forefront. Once a pioneer in legalizing medical marijuana, the state of Montana may now become the first to repeal its medical marijuana law. Set against the sweeping vistas of the Rockies, the steamy lamplight of marijuana grow houses, and the bustling halls of the State Capitol, CODE OF THE WEST follows the political process of marijuana policy reform – and the 2011 federal crackdown on medical marijuana growers across the country. This is the story of what happens when politics fail, emotions run high and communities pay the price.
Months after our world premiere in 2012, the lives of some of our film subjects took dramatic turns. In particular, a legal drama changed the life of one subjects forever, and inspired our filmmaking team to return to the camera and the editing suite to create a new version of CODE OF THE WEST that would bring our story up to the present day. We couldn't have created this new version of the film without the support of more than 500 backers on Kickstarter, whose passion for the issues and the human lives behind the film made our work possible. We released the new version to rave reviews during our New York theatrical run this spring and we continue to roll out the new version in cities across the country!
Rebecca Richman Cohen, Spring 2012
This is a film about the legislative process, but it is also the story of how different communities struggle to construct a universe of shared values. Nomos is an ancient Greek word meaning “human law.” The term is never uttered in our film, but its meaning underlies much of what our crew documented in Montana. Nomos refers not only to the formal laws that legislators draft as legal code, but also the social norms and unwritten codes of conduct that govern our daily life. CODE OF THE WEST is a film about what happens when there are conflicting codes: when our formal laws conflict with each other, when our social norms conflict with our laws, and when different segments of our society embrace divergent norms.
My team and I have tried to capture the human story behind the legislative process of state-level marijuana policy reform — a messy, tangled affair that has implications for policy reform in other states and for the democratic process in the nation at large. Though the federal government considers marijuana a Schedule I Narcotic (with no accepted medical use), an increasing number of states disagree. Today eighteen states and Washington DC have legalized medical marijuana use for people suffering from debilitating medical conditions including cancer, epilepsy, severe nausea, multiple sclerosis and chronic pain. But the way in which we regulate a drug that is also widely used by adults and teenagers who don’t suffer from these conditions — and that has become a powerful symbol in a much wider debate about cultural values — raises the hard questions that drove me to make this film.
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 an archetypal, cowboy-era “Code of the West” as the official Montana state code of ethics. But despite the pleasing nostalgia of the idea, the marijuana debate we chronicled revealed to us that a single code of ethics can’t begin to reflect the deep divisions at work in Montana’s society. And it forced us to wonder, “Who is more true to Montana’s pioneering spirit?” Is it those seeking to guard their communities against marijuana billboards that mar the view of the Rockies? Or is it the drug policy reformers seeking to keep medical marijuana legal?
The question, of course, is not whether Montanans — or any of us — should live by a common code, but rather which code, or whose code, we should adopt. The code of the pious? The libertarian? The entrepreneur? The local government? The regional tradition? The national law?
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.