Peter McWilliams

In Memoriam

Peter McWilliams, victim of the drug war
Eulogy - June 2000

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 marijuana plants.

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 Stossel summarized:

"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 Star (CA), 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 marijuana -- 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 14.

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.


Peter McWilliams, victim of the drug war
From Peter McWilliams - Activist & Bestselling Author of How to Survive the Loss of a Loved One, the Life 101 series, and Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do

It is December 18, 1997, 6:24 a.m.

Twenty-four hours ago I was working in my living room on my computer next to a fire -- sort of high-tech meets Abe Lincoln. It was not yet dawn, and I had been working most of the night. Leonard Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat" begins, "It's four in the morning, the end of December." It's a special time of night and a special time of year.

A hard pounding on the door accompanied by shouts of "Police! Open Up!" broke the silence, broke my reverie, and nearly broke down the door. I opened the door, in my bathrobe, and was immediately handcuffed. I was taken outside my house while the Drug Enforcement Administration agents ran through my house, guns drawn, commando-style, looking for, I suppose, the notorious, well-armed, highly trained Medical Marijuana Militia. After about five minutes of this, I was taken back into my own home, still handcuffed, and told to sit down. I was informed I was not under arrest; I was merely being "restrained" while the DEA "enforced the search warrant."

I was told they had a search warrant, but none was immediately produced. Over time, more and more of it was placed on a table nearby. I was never told the reasons why the judge issued a search warrant for my home of eleven years, my new home (two-doors down), and Prelude Press' offices, my publishing company. The reasons, I was told, were "under seal." In other words, I have no way of determining if this is a "reasonable" search and seizure. The nine DEA officers put on rubber gloves and systematically went through every piece of paper in my house, and they didn't even have to tell me why.

I should point out, as I promised them I would, that I was never "roughed up." The DEA agents were, at all times, polite, if not openly friendly. Agents would ask me tentative, curious questions about my books, as though we had just met at an autographing party. They would admire my art, as though they were invited guests into my home. They would call me by my first name, although I am old enough to be the parental unit of any of them. One of the lead agents made it a special point to tell me that the DEA has a reputation for busting into people's homes, physically abusing them, and destroying property, all in the name of "a reasonable search and seizure." This, the DEA agent reminded me on more than one occasion, was not taking place during this search and seizure. I agreed, and promised to report that fact faithfully. I have now done so.

I suppose the DEA considers this a step up, and I suppose I agree, but there was an eerie, perhaps more frightening aspect about having bright (for the most part), friendly, young people systematically attempting to destroy my life. I do not use the word destroy lightly. DEA agents are trained to fight a war, the War on Drugs, and in that war I am the enemy. The DEA, therefore, fights me with the only tool it has -- taking everything I own, selling it, spending that money on hiring more DEA Special Agents to fight the Drug War, and putting me in jail for the rest of my life. From these young people's point of view, it is an act of patriotism.

As one DEA agent told the office manager of my publishing company, "We'll probably be taking over here in about six months." The agent meant that it is within the DEA's plans to take everything I own, including my publishing company, through assets forfeiture -- that lovely gift of the War on Drugs allowing law enforcement agencies to take your property without the benefit of a trial, or even court order, and you must hire a lawyer and go to court to prove the property they took was innocent of Drug War mutiny.

But I am more than the DEA's enemy. Because I have had the nerve to speak out against the War on Drugs, that makes me not just an enemy, but a traitor. In 1993, I published "Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do: The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in Our Free Country." In this Libertarian tome, I explored in some detail the War on Drug's unconstitutionality, racism, anti-free market basis, deception, wastefulness, destructiveness, and un-winnability. Yes, the Drug War is another Viet Nam, and the drug warriors have no intention of becoming the homeless people so many Viet Nam veterans have tragically become. Smart warriors. So, they don't like me, and I must admit, I'm pretty bad.

But when I got sick, I got even worse.

Since March 1996 and my personal discovery of marijuana's medicinal benefits when AIDS and cancer entered my life, I have been an outspoken advocate of medical marijuana. I donated office space to the Los Angeles Cannabis Buyer's Club, led the successful PR campaign to get the operators of that club out of jail after its October 1996 bust, founded the Medical Marijuana Magazine on-line in February 1997, testified in favor of medical marijuana in front of the California Medical Examiners Board and the National Academy of Sciences, and appeared in numerous media (including CNN, MSNBC, The Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, United Press International, CBS Radio Network, and dozens more) advocating medical marijuana.

For a sick guy, Iíve been around. (Actually, I've been around, and that's how I got sick, but that's another story.) Most disturbing to the DEA, I would guess, was my strong criticism of the DEA in a two-page ad I placed in the December 1, 1997 "Daily Variety." I denounced DEA Chief Thomas Constantine's threat to criminally investigate the creators of "Murphy Brown" for Murphy's fictional medical marijuana use. With comments such as, "The DEA gives the phrase "'ambulance chasing' a whole new meaning", I'm surprised it took them seventeen days.

About two weeks ago, the Medical Marijuana Magazine On-line announced it would soon be posting portions of the book about medical marijuana I have been working on for almost two years, "A Question of Compassion: An AIDS Cancer Patient Explores Medical Marijuana." This brings us back to my computer and the DEA agents' almost immediate interest in it. My computer and its back-up drives, which the DEA also took, contained the entirety of my creative output -- most of it unpublished -- for the almost two years since my diagnosis. My central project has been the above-mentioned book. Being a fair, balanced, objective view of medical marijuana in the United States, the book is unscathingly critical of the DEA.

So, they took the computer, they took all of my backup copies from the computer, and took along most of my research materials on medical marijuana, just to balance the load. If I don't get those back, I will be looking at least three months additional work to get to where I was in that book alone, and redoing what you've already done is disheartening at best. Not only am I somewhat in shock for having been invaded and my "children" kidnapped, every time I go for something -- from a peanut butter cup to a magazine -- it's not there. Something is there, but it's not what was there twenty-four hours before. Everything reeks of nine different fragrances commingled in close quarters, something along the lines of the men's cologne department at Macy's. My address books were taken -- not just copied, but taken. As you can imagine, all this is most disorienting.

A few random observations:

* They took a microcassette tape from the recorder next to my bed. On the tape I had dictated a letter to President Clinton (dictating to President Clinton in bed seemed appropiate), asking him to rise above politics and show his compassion by making medical marijuana available to the sick. I may never get to mail that letter now, but I certainly hope the DEA agent who listens to it will transcribe it and send it to his or her bossís bossís boss.

* I have precisely three porn magazines in my house. All three were placed out on top of things before photographing those things. A jury, looking at these photographs, would think I have pornography all over the place. I don't mind if a jury thinks this, because my view of pornography agrees completely with that of Oscar Levant, "It helps."

* When the DEA agents found a collection of "Playboys" at the offices of Prelude Press (the Playboy Forum is one of the best anti-prohibition information sources around), I am told three of the male DEA agents spent a great deal of time testosteronistically (I get to coin words; I'm a writer, and I know what I'm doing, but don't try this sort of thing at home without professional supervision, okay?) pointing out to each other portions of the magazine that had nothing to do with drugs but are obviously addictive nonetheless.

* There were seven men and two women, and I observed closely for almost three hours (handcuffs have a way of riveting your attention). Whatever their ranking may be I do not know, but the women were treated as subservient to the men, and the women accepted this role without complaint. Each of the men gave commands to the women, but I didn't hear a woman give a command to a man. Perhaps the women are starting at the bottom as the newest recruits in the DEA's outreach to women it started to reach out to, ya know, improve the Boys-with-Toys image of the DEA. For the time being, at least, from this limited sociological sampling, I would say the DEA is still very much The Constantine Boys' Club.

* An invasion of nine people into the world of someone with a suppressed immune system is risky at best. Keep in mind, DEA agents come into contact with criminals from all sorts of international places with all sort of diseases. Some diseases their young federal bodies don't develop, only pass along. I think of certain strains of tuberculosis, deadly to AIDS people, but rampant in certain quarters, quarters where I make it a point not to go, quarters, however, in which the DEA seems to thrive. Since my diagnosis, I have lived the life of a near hermit, especially during flu season, which is now. Thundering into my sterile home surrounded by the clean air of Laurel Canyon (yes, I'm a Lady of the Canyon), comes the walking equivalent of germ warfare. At least two of them were openly sniffling or coughing. Six of them handled me in some way. I kept flashing back to the U.S. Cavalry passing out smallpox-infested blankets to shivering Native Americans. Have these people no sense of the struggle AIDS people have fighting illness and the lengths some of us go to avoid unnecessary exposure? (Naive American question, huh?)

Philosophically, or at least stoically, one could say all this is part of my research into medical marijuana and those who oppose it -- especially into those who oppose it. The problem is,I'm not sure what I've learned. One of two scenarios surfaces, one more frightening than the next.

Scenario One: The DEA, angered by my criticism and fearful of more, decided to intimidate me and have a free peek at my book in the bargain.

Scenario Two: The DEA, caught in a blind, bureaucratic nightmare, is just now, five months later, getting around to investigating my connection as possible financier of Todd McCormick's "Medical Marijuana Mansion" or even -- gasp! -- that I grew some for myself. This means that in order to justify the arrest of Todd McCormick -- a magnificent blunder -- they are now going to come after me, a magnificent blubber.

Either way, if the federal government has its way, I will spend the rest of my life in a federal prison, all expenses paid, and deaths from AIDS-related illnesses can be very costly, indeed. Truth be told, prison doesn't particularly frighten me. All I plan to do the rest of my life is create things, anyway. Write, mostly, I think. Or, maybe, talk. I've been everywhere I want to go. It's my time of life for didactic pontificating. It is a phase writers go through immediately preceded by channel surfing and immediately followed by channel surfing. Or hemlock.

If the DEA has seized my computer to silence me, I am not going to be silenced, as I hope this missive illustrates. The DEA's next oppressive move, then, would be my arrest. (Some have cautioned me about assassination, which I find this difficult to comprehend -- but then I thought my writings were so safe (freedom on the press, and all) I didn't even have a backup in a Public Storage locker somewhere. I should, I suppose, state that I am not in any way suicidal about any of this -- or anything else, for that matter. If I should die before the DEA wakes and they say my death was a suicide -- don't you believe it. I plan to go about as quietly into that good night as Timothy Leary. Still, this concern is far from my mind.)

If they intend to come after me as the financier of Todd McCormick's medical marijuana empire, the DEA knows full well that I took credit for that immediately after Todd's arrest -- which made a lie of the DEA's claim that Todd purchased his "mansion" with "drug money." Yes, I gave Todd McCormick enough money to rent the ugliest house in Bel-Air and, being Todd McCormick, he grew marijuana there. The money I gave him was an advance for a book on cultivating marijuana.

In July 1997, the DEA came in to his home, uninvited, destroyed his plants (one had been alive since 1976), and took his computer, on which he had notes for his book. He cannot use medical marijuana as a condition of his bail-release. He is drug-tested twice-weekly. He cannot go to Amsterdam where he could legally find relief. Todd now faces life imprisonment -- a ten-year mandatory minimum -- and a $4 million fine, all for cultivating medical marijuana, which is specifically permitted under the California Compassionate Use Act of 1996. The DEA at the federal level and Attorney General Dan Lungren (with Governor Pete Wilson smiling his approval from on high) in California should have opposed Proposition 215 in court. There, they had the right -- and the responsibility, if they truly believed it wrong -- to challenge the law and make their case for the prohibition of its enactment. They did not. Instead, the DEA is fighting its battles in Todd's and my sickrooms.


I write these things and feel myself in mortal combat with a gnarly monster; then I remember the human faces of the kind people who tried to make me comfortable with small talk as they went through my belongings as neatly as they could. Then I remember, painfully, that the War on Drugs is a war fought by decent Americans against other decent Americans, and these people rifling through my belongings really were America's best -- bright young people willing to die for their country in covert action. It takes a special kind of person for that, and every Republic must have a generous number of them in order to survive.

But instead of our best and our brightest being trained to hunt down terrorist bombs or child abductors -- to mention but two useful examples -- our misguided government is using all that talent to harass and arrest Blacks, Hispanics, the poor, and the sick -- the casualties in the War on Drugs, the ones that, to quote Leonard Cohen again, "sank beneath your wisdom like a stone." It is the heart of the evil of a prohibition law in a free country. After all, picking on someone with AIDS and cancer is a little redundant, don't you think?

On the way out, one of the DEA agents said, "Have a nice day."

I believe the comment was sincere.

-- Peter McWilliams

(Six months after writing the above essay, Peter McWilliams was dead.)