Film Review: Code of the West

Engrossing, compassionate documentary about the fight over medical marijuana in Montana.

What if federal agents suddenly raided hospitals and removed medications vital to sustaining the lives of patients? That is a question posited in Code of the West by Lori Burnam, an elderly woman who suffers from cancer and emphysema, and whose medical supply of marijuana was cut off by such an action in Montana in 2011.

The raids on some 26 different medical marijuana businesses—devastating to patients like Burnam and throwing many people of out work—occurred as a result of that state’s ongoing battle over the repeal of Montana’s pioneering medical marijuana laws raging in the House and Senate. Rebecca Richman Cohen’s Code of the West focuses on that fight, giving equal time to both sides, although hearing the heartbreaking testimony of such as Burnam, there can be no doubt where the filmmaker’s sympathies lie.

This is a very human, deeply engrossing and elegantly crafted film which draws you in without hysterical proselytizing or sentiment. Its main character is Tom Daubert, a lawyer and lobbyist for medical cannabis, who even had a stake in a pot company. He—and his cohorts in the business—elected to give a respectable, law-abiding face to the movement, emphasizing the relief from pain their crop affords the sick, and was very nearly sentenced to jail for his efforts. He’s an inviting presence on film, quietly intelligent and level-headed, even when faced with looming disaster. Cohen follows his deep involvement in the actual fight over the repeal of the law in the 2011 Montana State Legislature, and it’s one hairy rollercoaster of a ride, fraught with small victories and bigger frustrations.

Daubert’s chief opponent in the film is Cherrie Brady, a classically “concerned mom” who is largely blind to the beneficent effects of pot to the truly needy, decrying the perceived gargantuan threat it constitutes to “the children.” All the hoary fears about grass leading directly to cocaine and crystal-meth addiction are trotted out, while the actual fact that marijuana usage among teenagers has actually declined in the years in which it was legalized is utterly ignored. She, of course, has no real answers for those who do desperately require it for medical purposes, surrounded as she is by Bible bangers who invoke the dead spirits of overdosed kids singing “Hallelujah” when the bill is finally repealed.

It is to Cohen’s credit that she admirably refrains from overt personal editorializing throughout, however sorely tempted she may have been, and gives these self-dubbed saviors of society ample time to hang themselves by the rope of their compassion-free, self-righteous rhetoric. “Kids will always have access to drugs in schools and colleges anyway” someone ruefully observes, and truer words were never spoken. One pro-marijuana activist, enraged after the repeal, adds that, aside from the medical question, the use of grass should simply be free to anyone who wants it to be able to enjoy sex, music, movies and a sunset.

The debate, like so many other hot-button issues, goes on, but I’m grateful to this film for presenting the facts so clearly and with such even-handed compassion, as well as a lot of the visual physical beauty that is the pristine state of Montana. Vast empty terrain, soaring mountain ranges and verdant jungles of cannabis plants—before they are ruthlessly cut down during a filmed raid that will have every pothead in the audience moaning—delight the eye throughout. In her title and overall approach, Cohen evokes the time-honored code of the West about doing and living right, as personified by the idealized likes of John Wayne on film, and the parallel with what’s going on in her movie is beautifully apt.