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Code of the West (2012)

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I began celebrating the Sundance Film Festival a day early with Code of the West (2012). It is not the very latest, but the topic still resonates. The independent documentary has to do with medical marijuana. This is a controversial issue and in the film gets a decent, fair-and-balanced treatment. It is, however, sympathetic to the movement that gave rise to the use of medical marijuana against federal law. Though not limited to western states, westerners more than easterners lead the pack toward a more compassionate practice of medicine and caregiving. Colorado is now the main focus of attention, where over a hundred thousand, not limited to medical situations, have already registered. But the film illustrates setbacks more than long-lasting success.

It takes place in Montana and illustrates how community pressure can undermine unconventional efforts to alleviate suffering and assist patients through difficult times. It begins with Tom Daubert in August of 2010. He is the first "talking head". His situation has become dire. He started the legislative rally in 2004 that led to a Montana law permitting the legal use of medical marijuana. He also cashed in on the fruits of his own labor. He owned Montana Cannibis, a company that did nothing but thrive, until Montana citizens began a concerted push toward the repeal of a law they considered wrong and intolerable. It is maybe worth the price of admission to the liberal-minded just to see Daubert's potted plants neatly arranged in a spacious green house. But they will also have to hear a critic speak of their "demonic influence."

The second "talking head" is Lori Burnham, a cancer and emphysema patient. From here on there is a divide between those who favored progressive legislation and those who abhorred anything less than the continued criminalization of marijuana users, for whatever reason. The former speak seriously about illnesses, being confined to wheel chairs, and/or attached to tubes. They emphasize the downside of alternative drugs that produce debilitating side effects. For some reason, medical marijuana users prefer marijuana to morphine and pills, which they also have access to. The nay-sayers appear less intense, but equally resolved. Unconvinced, they argue that recreational marijuana can never be separated from its legitimate use. To underscore their unwavering position, they produced an effective commercial highlighting a child, seen in a playground, asking help from TV viewers to disempower the predatory, marijuana trade. It must have been hard, afterward, not to back away from a pro-marijuana platform. This, and the lament by a Montanan that the state will be come to be seen as another place linked to drugs, like Mexico or Colombia.

This is basically how those in favor of a repeal won Montana. They not only re-criminalized marijuana production and consumption, they de-capitalized it. The law's wording is funny, but the upshot seems to be that in addition to court fees and penalties, including imprisonment, marijuana, as a business, no longer has the multi-million dollar potential it once had in Montana. All those farmers, distributors, and practitioners reverted back, in one fell swoop, to the antiquated 1970 law on controlled substances. Do not ask me to decide. I have my own views, none of which I would knowingly force upon Montana's split citizenry. But I liked the film, since it was so informative. Also, living in the southern realm, Montana seems worlds away. If this is its only problem, however, or its biggest one, they will never be bad off. Guaranteed.

However, it is something of a mystery to me as to what this debate, which has not yet been finalized, has to do with codes of the west -- literally, as expressed in history and westerns. To this end, John Wayne is quoted, by way of Zane Grey. The code, despite its many variations, actually existed, and probably still exists, if updated and transformed. To me, its existence, at least at first, was predicated on the fact that there were no legislative bodies or law-enforcers to appeal to fast enough to make a difference. Out of necessity, cowboys and frontiersmen alike invented a way, understood but not written down, that allowed them to survive the stridency of a bull-headed society fraught with guns, knives, and rifles. This conundrum, as to whether to allow or disallow medical marijuana, simply needs more time. But it does appear as though the West will eventually decide it all.

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