A Knock at the Door


A popular writer who opposes his country's involvement in a disastrous war is working at home early one morning when nine government agents pound on the door. They handcuff him and systematically search the house, looking at every piece of paper. They leave with eight plastic bags of documents, his computer, and two external hard drives. The seized material includes all copies of the manuscript for his latest book, which criticizes the agency conducting the raid.

As stories about the oppression of dissidents go, this one is not so horrifying: The writer is still alive; he wasn't roughed up or imprisoned; so far he has not even been charged with a crime. What makes the incident especially disturbing is that it occurred last week in Los Angeles. The war is the war on drugs. The agency is the Drug Enforcement Administration. The writer is Peter McWilliams, best known as the author of self-help books such as Life 101 and How to Survive the Loss of a Love.

McWilliams's current project is A Question of Compassion: An AIDS-Cancer Patient Explores Medical Marijuana. The book relates his own experience with cannabis, which he has used to relieve the nausea caused by AIDS drugs and cancer chemotherapy. It argues that patients who can benefit from marijuana should not have to risk arrest.

McWilliams is intimately familiar with that risk: In December 1996, Michigan state police arrested him for marijuana possession as he was about to board a plane from Detroit to Los Angeles. California voters had just approved Proposition 215, which sanctions the medical use of marijuana, and McWilliams's doctor confirmed in writing that his patient was using the drug for therapeutic purposes. In late October, Michigan District Judge Tina Brooks Green ruled that McWilliams could offer a "medical necessity" defense.

Green changed her mind a week later, saying McWilliams's life did not seem to be in imminent danger. McWilliams, who says he needs marijuana to keep down the AIDS medication that keeps him alive, asked the judge to reconsider that reversal. He was still awaiting her decision on December 17, when the DEA paid him a visit.

In addition to McWilliams's residence, the agents searched another home he owns and the office of his publishing house. According to the search warrant, they were looking for evidence of marijuana cultivation. But the only cannabis they found was McWilliams's personal supply of two or three ounces, legal under Proposition 215. Even if McWilliams had been growing marijuana, that too would have been legal under state law, provided it was for his own medical use.

Federal law, on the other hand, prohibits possession and cultivation of marijuana, regardless of the purpose. In response to Proposition 215, the Clinton administration threatened to punish doctors who recommend the drug to their patients, a policy that has been enjoined by a federal judge on First Amendment grounds.

Meanwhile, the administration has asked a National Academy of Sciences panel to evaluate the evidence of marijuana's medical utility. McWilliams addressed the NAS panel at a public meeting in Irvine, California, a few days before the DEA seized his book.

The search was apparently related to the prosecution of McWilliams's friend Todd McCormick, whom the DEA arrested for marijuana cultivation in July. McCormick, who has been treated repeatedly for bone cancer, was using marijuana to relieve pain and enhance his appetite. He said he was also growing cannabis to assist McWilliams with the research for his book.

DEA spokeswoman Sharon Carter will neither confirm nor deny that the agency's interest in McWilliams grew out of the McCormick case, but she says "the investigation was not connected to the book. Anything that was considered evidence was seized." McWilliams says the DEA agents told him they'd return his computer equipment in a week, but Carter says he will probably have to file a petition to get his property back. A week after the search, his book was still in federal custody.

Along with everything else, the DEA took a microcassette from the tape recorder next to McWilliams's bed. "Ironically," he says, "on that was a letter I had dictated to President Clinton, asking him to take a leadership position from a compassionate point of view on medical marijuana. I hope whichever DEA agent listens to that tape will transcribe it and sent it to his ultimate boss."