Peter McWilliams, R.I.P.
By William F. Buckley, Jr.
Peter McWilliams is dead. Age? Fifty. Profession?
Author, poet, publisher.
Particular focus of interest? The federal judge in California
(George King) would decide in a few weeks how long a sentence
to hand down, and whether to send McWilliams to prison or let
him serve his sentence at home.
What was his offense? He collaborated in growing
What was his defense? Well, the judge wouldn't
allow him to plead his defense to the jury. If given a chance,
the defense would have argued that under Proposition 215, passed
into California constitutional law in 1996, infirm Californians
who got medical relief from marijuana were permitted to use it.
The judge also forbade any mention that McWilliams suffered from
AIDS and cancer, and got relief from the marijuana.
What was he doing when he died? Vomiting.
The vomiting hit him while in his bathtub, and he choked to death.
Was there nothing he might have done to still
the impulse to vomit? Yes, he could have taken marijuana; but
the judge's bail terms forbade him to do so, and he submitted
to weekly urine tests to confirm that he was living up to the
terms of his bail.
Did anybody take note of the risk he was undergoing?
He took Marinol-a proffered, legal substitute, but reported after
using it that it worked for him only about one-third of the time.
When it didn't work, he vomited.
Was there no public protest against the judge's
ruling? Yes. On June 9, the television program "20/20"
devoted a segment to the McWilliams plight. Commentator John
"McWilliams is out of prison on the condition
that he not smoke marijuana, but it was the marijuana that kept
him from vomiting up his medication. I can understand that the
federal drug police don't agree with what some states have decided
to do about medical marijuana, but does that give them the right
to just end-run those laws and lock people up?"
Shortly after the trial last year, Charles
Levendosky, writing in the Ventura County
(Calif.) Star, summarized: "The cancer treatment resulted
in complete remission." But only the marijuana gave him
sustained relief from the vomiting that proved mortal.
Is it being said, in plain language, that
the judge's obstinacy resulted in killing McWilliams? Yes. The
Libertarian Party press release has made exactly that charge.
"McWilliams was prohibited from using medical marijuna -
and being denied access to the drug's anti-nausea properties
almost certainly caused his death."
Reflecting on the judge's refusal to let the
jury know that there was understandable reason for McWilliams
to believe he was acting legally, I ended a column in this space
in November by writing, "So, the fate of Peter McWilliams
is in the hands of Judge King. Perhaps the cool thing for him
to do is delay a ruling for a few months, and just let Peter
McWilliams die." Well, that happened last week, on June
The struggle against a fanatical imposition
of federal laws on marijuana will continue, as also on the question
whether federal laws can stifle state initiatives. Those who
believe the marijuana laws are insanely misdirected have a martyr.
Peter was a wry, mythogenic guy, humorous,
affectionate, articulate, shrewd, sassy. He courted anarchy at
the moral level. His most recent book (his final book) was called
"Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do." We were old friends,
and I owe my early conversion to word processing to his guidebook
on how to do it. Over the years we corresponded, and he would
amiably twit my conservative opinions. When I judged him to have
gone rampant on his own individualistic views in his book, I
wrote him to that effect. I cherish his reply - nice acerbic
deference, the supreme put-down.
"Please remember the Law of Relativity
as applied to politics: In order for you to be right, at least
someone else must be wrong. Your rightness is only shown in relation
to the other's wrongness. Conversely, your rightness is necessary
for people like me to look truly wrong. Before Bach, people said
of bad organ music, 'That's not quite right.' After Bach, people
said flatly, 'That's wrong.' This allowed dedicated composers
to grow, and cast the neophytes back to writing how-to-be-happy
music. So, thank me for my wrongness, as so many reviews of my
book will doubtless say, 'People should read more of a truly
great political commentator: William F. Buckley Jr.'"
Imagine such a spirit ending its life at 50,
just because they wouldn't let him have a toke. We have to console
ourselves with the comment of the two prosecutors. They said
they were "saddened" by Peter McWilliams' death. Many
of us are - by his death and the causes of it.
Note: Write to William F. Buckley, Jr. at
Universal Press Syndicate, 4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111.
His column appears in many newspapers.
Bookmark: MAP's link to Peter McWilliams items