The politics of Code Of The West are laudable, but its manner of pursuing them is simple to the point of frustration. Rebecca Richman Cohen’s documentary about the legislative wrestling match over Montana’s medical marijuana (MMJ) law gives an underserved topic some long-due consideration in a spritely 75 minutes. Its brevity is a natural byproduct of the film’s narrow focus, and that’s largely a good thing as attempts to inflate it would likely produce more drag than lift. Cohen’s film achieves liftoff and flight, but sort of in the manner of those build-at-home gliders: the basic principles are sound, but it doesn’t look like much.
And that’s OK! Every documentary doesn’t have to be Koyaanisqatsi — heaven save me from a world where every documentarian is trying to totally blow your mind, bro — or even Don’t Look Back. And Richman Cohen finds good use for the Montana landscape, stitching her interviews and statistics together with static shots of Big Sky country that cut frontier majesty with concrete confinement, balancing nostalgia and modernity in striking but straightforward fashion. What makes Code Of The West frustrating is that the seams don’t really hold up, and as a result, the film’s efforts at framing the MMJ battle distract from its story rather than augment it.
Richman Cohen opens with Tom Daubert at a loss for words, his opening and closing mouth a dark gap in his snowy beard. Daubert is facing federal charges over MT Medical, the large medical marijuana growing business he runs in fastidious keeping with the state’s MMJ law. He’d helped lobby for the 2004 bill, and sought to channel a wave of backlash energy into a balanced reform of the law. The film tracks Daubert’s efforts, contrasting them with Concerned Mom Cherrie Brady’s efforts to win a repeal of the law that provides a uniquely lucid form of pain relief to suffering Montanans. It offers two kinds of context for this lobbying tussle: the facts and testimonials that support Daubert and MMJ on the one hand, and a concurrent apparently-serious legislative proposal to instate “the code of the west” as a statewide code of ethics. In a note from the film’s press kit, Richman Cohen explains that the latter of these contextual threads is meant to lend grand thematic weight to “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.” That’s well and good, but the film’s own treatment of this strange codification of the ‘cowboy way’ is undercooked, intermittent, and more confusing than helpful.
With her other contextual thread, Richman Cohen provides useful information, but misses some major opportunities. The film’s strongest moments feature an elderly cancer patient explain the dignity and quality of life that marijuana provides her, and which traditional palliatives like morphine would strip from her. The terror on the woman’s face as she recalls the dissociative experience of morphine is unforgettable. But with that interview out of the way early on, Code Of The West retreats to statistics showing teen marijuana use has not spiked since the law was enacted, despite a gradual increase in abuse of the system by doctors who dole out MMJ prescriptions in just a few seconds. And rather than put any of the repeal advocates or their law enforcement allies on a hot seat using such data, Richman Cohen chooses to show them as almost cartoonishly obtuse zealots whose legislative efforts benefit from perfectly timed federal enforcement raids on Daubert’s operation and 25 others.
There’s some fist-pumping validation, for opponents of the drug war, in Richman Cohen’s representation of Brady et al. as possessed of a sort of pre-Enlightment mentality and Reefer Madness-style foolishness. If the goal here is to suggest that prohibition proponents are putting their passion above their reason, mission accomplished. But that goal would represent a serious paucity of ambition, and one that corresponds neatly to the basic error of many in the anti-prohibition camp: the belief that facts will carry the day, and emotional appeals are secondary. Richman Cohen doesn’t spend any time with the law enforcement officials and repeal-minded state legislators who visit Daubert’s grow operation early on, and thus misses an opportunity to characterize and interrogate their thinking. She captures repeal proponent Brady’s advice to her cohort that personal stories make better testimony than facts and figures, but never puts a policymaker or cop on the spot to defend the emotion-over-data approach that underlies prohibition. Together with the messy, titular analogy, this failure to show prohibitionists defending their thinking produces an implied sneer of superiority in Code Of The West, one that will be all too familiar to many drug policy reformers. The resulting film seems doomed to ride the choir-preaching circuit, leaving nary a changed mind in its wake.