Fatal Condition


"The Drug War doesn't need another martyr," Peter McWilliams wrote last November. "It has too many already." McWilliams, a best-selling author and activist who was arrested on federal marijuana charges in 1998, was explaining his decision to plead guilty and throw himself on the mercy of the court.

Mercy was not something that U.S. District Judge George King seemed to have in abundance. King had prohibited McWilliams, who used marijuana to fight the nausea caused by his AIDS medications, from presenting a "medical necessity" defense at his trial in Los Angeles.

That meant that neither McWilliams nor his lawyer could so much as mention his disease, marijuana's usefulness as a medicine, the program under which eight patients were receiving marijuana from the federal government, or Proposition 215, the 1996 California ballot initiative that sanctioned the medical use of marijuana. King had also refused to let McWilliams smoke marijuana while he was free on bail, even though McWilliams said it was the only way he could keep down the drugs that were keeping him alive.

Still, McWilliams hoped the judge would allow him to serve his sentence under home confinement. Because of his weakened immune system, he felt certain he could not survive prison.

It seems McWilliams could not survive the conditions of his bail, either. On June 14, two months before he was scheduled to be sentenced, the 50-year-old writer was found dead on the floor of his bathroom. Friends reported that he appeared to have choked to death on vomit.

Without marijuana to treat the nausea brought on by his AIDS pills, McWilliams had developed a regimen that included Marinol (a prescription drug containing a synthetic version of THC, marijuana's main active ingredient), various herbs, hot baths, bed rest, and electric massage. "The procedure of keeping down the medications is agonizing, exhausting, debilitating, and I must do it three times a day," he wrote in February. "It [would be] entirely unnecessary if I could use medical marijuana."

Although McWilliams' ordeal seems to be exactly the sort of thing that medical marijuana activists want to prevent, his case aroused ambivalence within the movement. He and Todd McCormick, a friend who used marijuana to relieve chronic pain resulting from childhood treatments for bone cancer, were charged with raising some 6,000 plants at four different locations.

That's a bit more than they needed for their own use. McCormick said he was growing the plants as part of his research for a book on medical marijuana that McWilliams was publishing. The Drug Enforcement Administration said the two planned to supply marijuana to "buyer's clubs" serving patients authorized to use the drug by Proposition 215.

Whichever version you believe, there's no question that McWilliams and McCormick broke federal law, which does not recognize any legitimate reason to grow marijuana. Indeed, their operation was not even legal under Proposition 215, which allows cultivation for a patient's personal use but not for research or for sale to others.

The McWilliams/McCormick case called attention to the absurdity of classifying marijuana as a Schedule I drug under federal law, signifying a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use. Although scientifically groundless, that classification is self-perpetuating, since any use of a Schedule I drug is "abuse" by definition and no Schedule I drug can be legally used as a medicine.

The case also illustrated the problems caused by legalizing medical marijuana, as Proposition 215 ostensibly did, without authorizing anyone to supply it. Since relatively few patients are prepared to grow their own pot, most have to rely on the black market.

In other words, marijuana is not really a legal medicine, even in California. By highlighting that fact, McWilliams embarrassed the quieter, more discreet activists who are trying to make medical marijuana respectable–especially because (unlike pharmaceutical companies?) he was accused of a profit motive.

It probably did not help that McWilliams was not only a medical marijuana advocate but an outspoken opponent of drug prohibition. Indeed, as a prominent member of the Libertarian Party and the author of the 1993 book Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do, he called for the repeal of all consensual crime laws.

McWilliams' baggage made medical marijuana supporters reluctant to claim him as a poster boy for their cause. But now he is "another martyr" of the war on drugs, no matter how much they (and he) might have preferred otherwise.