Q&A: Rebecca Richman Cohen, Director of Medical Marijuana Documentary Code of the West

"Opponents of medical marijuana stood in front of state legislature and lied," she says about marijuana policies in Montana.

Image via Code of the West

Images via Code of the West

At a time when new drug policies are becoming so progressive in states around the country, Harvard Law graduate Rebecca Richman Cohen is one of the first filmmakers to take a step back with the system. Cohen is the director of Code of the West, a documentary telling the story of medical marijuana growers, users, and opponents in the state of Montana. Code of the West was originally released in the spring of 2012, but Cohen re-released the film in its second version this week. This new version will tackle up-to-date legislation, as well additions to some of the subjects’ story lines. Cohen talked about the stages of the documentary and how far the film has come since its premiere early last year.

You and your film team are re-releasing Code of the West this week. Talk about how the film has transformed since last year’s original release.

We released the original version of the film last April, and soon thereafter our main characters were indicted by the federal government. So we went out, kept shooting, launched a Kickstarter campaign, and raised more than $30,000 to go back and re-edit the film. So this month we’re releasing the new version, which is a really different film than the one that premiered last year. Next week we are releasing the film on iTunes, and will be doing a bunch of 4/20 screenings.

The ending of [the re-release] is entirely different. We also added new scenes in the middle to get more context and character development for people who were indicted or went to prison. The new version is more up to date, it’s more powerfully driven, and it’s the version we want folks to see.

What got you interested in exploring medical marijuana, specifically in the state of Montana?

I’m actually trained as a lawyer. I went to law school and spent a summer interning at a public defender’s office in the South Bronx. Sitting in arraignments day in and day out, you see massive amounts of people who are arrested for nonviolent drug crimes. It seemed like a pretty important topic to make a documentary on. There have been a lot of pot-docs out there that were “survey films”—they explored the issues, and interviewed experts. But what we wanted to do was tell a story that was unfolding in real time that would illuminate something about drug policies.

We settled on a story in Montana because we knew that of the 18 medical marijuana states, Montana had one of the most dysfunctional medical marijuana laws. What we didn’t anticipate was that Montana would be the first state to vote to repeal its medical marijuana law, and that there would be state-wide raids on medical marijuana growers. While we were there with cameras rolling, there were 26 raids across the entire state—that would be equivalent to over 900 raids in California if you adjust for population. The feds effectively shut down the medical marijuana program, and now it seems like a timely moment to look at that story.

What exactly does the term Code of the West pertain to?

There was a bill that was put forward in the Montana legislature to codify the “cowboy code of ethics,” which is their official state code of ethics. It was something that conservatives embraced, but also seemed to speak to values that drove the medical marijuana movement.

Massachusetts recently legalized medical marijuana. Do you think this is an ethical battle that Massachusetts will ever face?

I think Massachusetts has the benefit of learning from other states. It was the 18th state to legalize, so it has 17 other examples of what works and what doesn’t. Massachusetts isn’t going to fall prey to the problems that were encountered in Montana…

Opponents of medical marijuana stood up in front of the state legislature and lied. They said teen use has increased since Montana legalized medical marijuana, but by the federal government’s own findings, teen use actually decreased in Montana consistently since 2004 when the state legalized. We wanted to raise questions about why the press wasn’t covering this accurately, why state legislatures were being fed misinformation and, in turn, feeding people misinformation, and why it can be so hard to organize in the face of fear and propaganda.

You had said in your director’s statement that the state-level marijuana policy reform was “a messy and tangled affair.” Why is that so?

Well, the federal government says that marijuana is a narcotic with no recognized medical use, so at any point federal officials can swoop in, arrest, and prosecute people who are growing state-legal medical marijuana. And that is a scary thing for everyone—for patients who depend on medical marijuana, for growers who are at risk, and for communities who start to say, “Wow, are all these people around me really criminals?” Once you introduce that overwhelming fear of indictment, it’s hard to have a rational conversation about policy when it gets into the realm criminal justice.

How did audiences respond to this documentary in its first release last year? Both liberals and conservatives?

People were supportive. The film follows not only a group of medical marijuana reformers who were pushing for regulation, but also a group of angry mothers who were working to repeal the law. We tried very hard to find a balance that respected different perspectives while acknowledging that some information some groups were presenting was inaccurate. Opponents of medical marijuana came out and supported the film and did press with us. They felt we honored and respected their opinions.

For more information about Cohen and Code of the West, visit codeofthewestfilm.com. You can purchase the documentary on iTunes or find a 4/20 screening location here.