Civil Liberties

Soundbite: Perils of Pot

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Peter McWilliams, who made his name writing self-help books, is also the author of Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do, a 1993 critique of consensual crime laws. His latest project, A Question of Compassion: An AIDS-Cancer Patient Explores Medical Marijuana, argues that patients who use pot as a medicine should not have to risk arrest. McWilliams himself faces possession charges in Michigan, where he was arrested in December 1996.

A year later, the Drug Enforcement Administration searched his Los Angeles home for evidence of marijuana cultivation, seizing the computer hard drives containing his book manuscript. After receiving letters of protest from the American Civil Liberties Union, the DEA returned the hard drives on January 15. The book is scheduled to appear this spring (in stores and on the Web at www.mcwilliams.com). Senior Editor Jacob Sullum interviewed McWilliams by phone.

Q: Why did the prosecutor in Michigan decide to pursue the case against you?

A: The prosecutor said initially, "Send us a letter from your doctor, and we'll drop it." I even went before the judge, and the judge said, "Hopefully, we can dismiss your case before trial." Because it made The Detroit News, with an article that said this may set a precedent in the state of Michigan, they reversed themselves.

Michigan is one of four states with its own drug czar. When [Gov. John Engler] was a state senator in 1982, he sent a proclamation to President Reagan and Congress, demanding that the federal government turn over marijuana for medical uses to patients in Michigan. He's very embarrassed by that 15 years later. He's launched a war on drugs in Michigan with its own slogan, "No use, no excuse." And then I came along saying, "Wait, I have an excuse."

Q: What happened during the DEA search?

A: When they started searching, they made a beeline for my computer. I had no clue about this. Obviously, if I had thought about it, I would have made copies [of the book] and sent them off-site. I was working on a document, and the guy asked me, "Do you want me to save this first?" And then it dawned on me: They're going to take my computer. They'll tell you that drug dealers use computers, so we took his to see if there were any drug dealing records on it. As they were taking it, I told them, "On that computer is a book that is critical of the DEA. No matter what your intent is, your taking it is going to look bad." I had just announced that the book would be available [soon] on the Internet.

They took the cassette tape that was in my microcassette recorder, right next to my bed. Ironically, 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 send it to his ultimate boss.