Code of the West

Medical marijuana and the political process
Year Released
Film Length(s)
76 mins
Closed captioning available
Remote video URL


At a time when the country is rethinking its drug policies large and small, one state rises to the forefront of national attention. Once a pioneer in legalizing medical marijuana, the state of Montana is poised to become the first in the nation to repeal its medical marijuana law. Set against the sweeping vistas of the Rockies, the steamy lamplight of marijuana grow houses, and the bustling halls of the State Capitol, Code of the West follows the political process of marijuana policy reform. This is the story of the many lives and fraught emotions when politics fail and communities pay the price.

Featured review

A very human, deeply engrossing and elegantly crafted film.
David Noh
Film Journal International


An intriguing and invigorating behind-the-scenes examination of a hot topic.
P. Hall
Video Librarian (Recommended Film)
Code of the West is splendid documentary storytelling on many levels. It captures the full complexity and nuance of the medical marijuana issue without polemics. It's also a wonderful examination of what democracy looks like up close, when citizens acting in good faith fight in support of opposing convictions.
Robert MacCoun
Professor of Law and Public Policy, UC Berkeley
On display here is a keen eye for the how the legislative process works--and doesn't--and the film does an expert job weaving a compelling narrative out of the fear and sadness that has been caused by the federal government's ever-shifting agenda concerning medi-pot... Code of the West is a must-see for anyone interested in drug reform and patients'--or states'--rights.
Jordan Smith
Austin Chronicle
Set against the backdrop of Montana's unique cultural and physical landscape, Code of the West explores the complexity of the medical marijuana debate currently unfolding in many US states. Richman Cohen's focus on the human side of the debacle skillfully navigates the nuances of preemption, discretionary enforcement, and other contours of what is one of today's most interesting regulatory issues. Engaging as it is educational, this film is a powerful tool for exploring the legal, social, and generational facets of today's drug policy debate.
Leo Beletsky
Assistant Professor of Law and Health Sciences, Northeastern University School of Law
A timely documentary... Chronicling the efforts of the warring parties in clear-eyed but not unemotional fashion, Code of the West provides a microcosm of the political and social divides facing the country.
Frank Scheck
Hollywood Reporter
Eye-opening... gripping.
Liliana Segura
The Nation

Awards and Screenings

CINE Golden Eagle Award for Investigative Reporting, 2013
SXSW World Premiere, 2012

Director Commentary

This is a film about the legislative process, but it is also the story of how different communities struggle to construct a universe of shared values. Nomos is an ancient Greek word meaning “human law.” The term is never uttered in our film, but its meaning underlies much of what our crew documented in Montana. Nomos refers not only to the formal laws that legislators draft as legal code, but also the social norms and unwritten codes of conduct that govern our daily life. CODE OF THE WEST is 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.

My team and I have tried to capture the human story behind the legislative process of state-level marijuana policy reform — a messy, tangled affair that has implications for policy reform in other states and for the democratic process in the nation at large. Though the federal government considers marijuana a Schedule I Narcotic (with no accepted medical use), an increasing number of states disagree. Today eighteen states and Washington DC have legalized medical marijuana use for people suffering from debilitating medical conditions including cancer, epilepsy, severe nausea, multiple sclerosis and chronic pain. But the way in which we regulate a drug that is also widely used by adults and teenagers who don’t suffer from these conditions — and that has become a powerful symbol in a much wider debate about cultural values — raises the hard questions that drove me to make this film.

As we followed the trajectory of three medical marijuana bills in Montana, we couldn’t help but notice another debate taking place in the Montana Capitol. Halfway through the legislative session, the President of the Senate proposed a bill that would memorialize an archetypal, cowboy-era “Code of the West” as the official Montana state code of ethics. But despite the pleasing nostalgia of the idea, the marijuana debate we chronicled revealed to us that a single code of ethics can’t begin to reflect the deep divisions at work in Montana’s society. And it forced us to wonder, “Who is more true to Montana’s pioneering spirit?” Is it those seeking to guard their communities against marijuana billboards that mar the view of the Rockies? Or is it the drug policy reformers seeking to keep medical marijuana legal?

The question, of course, is not whether Montanans — or any of us — should live by a common code, but rather which code, or whose code, we should adopt. The code of the pious? The libertarian? The entrepreneur? The local government? The regional tradition? The national law?

If Montana's medical marijuana debate tells us anything, it is this: There are many codes of the West. And the way in which they are reconciled — or not — has profound implications for the way we live.

Features and Languages

Film Features

  • Closed Captioning
  • DVD Extras
  • Resources for Educators

Promotional Material

Promotional Stills

Opens in new window