Code of the West follows the trajectory of three medicinal marijuana bills in Montana, allowing the debates they subsequently stir to serve as a microcosm of the ongoing controversy of this country’s drug legislation. Over the last few years, Montana’s permissiveness of the sale and consumption of medicinal marijuana has been scrutinized, as a portion of the population insists, despite studies that assert otherwise, that the state drug laws have encouraged recreational smoking among teens. Those in support of legalized medicinal marijuana, such as lobbyist Tom Daubert, who’s admittedly biased for his business interest in the marijuana farm Montana Cannabis, strive to emphasize the amount of relief the drug provides patients suffering from extreme maladies such as advanced cancer.
This debate is unmistakably similar to the ongoing legal battles that rage over the methods of teaching the origin of human life in public schools or the arguments that strive to ban certain works of art from public display. All of these conflicts reflect a major tension in this country between, broadly speaking, conservative and progressive parties—a conflict that sends politicians scrambling to strike specifically calibrated poses in order to remain in power. Director Rebecca Richman Cohen is very aware of these tensions, and she, clearly sympathetic to the plight of Montana Cannabis and their brethren, astutely concentrates on those who stand to suffer from the loss of smoking marijuana. The sight of one elderly woman, whose maintained a quality of life for years longer than one could hope, speaks louder than a thousand graphs outlining the benefits of marijuana over morphine as a pain suppressive.
Code of the West is an engaging character study, and it often lands its punches, though it admittedly may not be too difficult to pull apart the fabric of the farce that is American drug policy. Cohen wisely allows the unconstitutional facts to speak for themselves, while also displaying a propagandist’s understanding that emotion will, at the end of the day, be the most persuasive weapon in her arsenal. Besides the moments with an ailing cancer patient, the most powerful scenes in the film show the workers of Montana Cannabis wandering their ravaged farm, now nearly bankrupt pariahs as a result of a bill’s eventual revision.
But a repetition sets in early on that moots the film’s dramatic impact. Cohen’s failure of empathy for those who strive to outlaw medicinal marijuana turns the protestors into hissable puritanical bad guys. If Cohen had explored the fear that drove the protestors of Montana Cannabis, the potential good intentions that may have sadly mutated into a form of repression, she might’ve made a rich and haunting film, rather than a sporadically poignant public-service message.