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Perhaps the word “murder” is too strong. But there is little question
that author and publisher Peter McWilliams died in large part because of
an overdose of government — one that could have been ameliorated by
several specific people at specific times during the process of his
interaction with what some call the justice system. His early death at
the age of 50 was morally attributable — whether or not it would be
appropriate or useful to have formal charges filed or not — to the
federal government, War on Drugs branch.
By the time he contracted AIDS in 1996 Peter McWilliams had had a
varied and mostly successful career as a writer and publisher. Beginning
with how-to books on personal computing in the late 1970s through “How
to Survive the Loss of a Love” and “Life 101” and “Life 102,” he had
about a half dozen books on the New York Times bestseller list at
various times. His magisterial “Ain’t Nobody’s Business if You Do” was
an eloquent and masterfully documented plea for an end to laws against
actions that harm nobody but the person who does them.
When he was diagnosed with AIDS and non-Hodgkins lymphoma in March
1996, he hadn’t smoked marijuana in years, though he had long been in
favor of ending criminal penalties against those who did. But he had
heard and read that marijuana seemed to control the nausea that in most
patients follows standard medical treatments for AIDS and cancer. He
tried it, then became an active campaigner for Proposition 215, then on
the California ballot.
When California voters approved Prop. 215, which allows patients with
a recommendation from a licensed physician to be exempt from state laws
against the use, possession and cultivation of marijuana, Peter got two
of his doctors to issue him recommendations. Having seen beneficial
results — and having seen a federal judge issue an injunction against
the federal government not to carry out “drug czar” Gen. Barry
McCaffrey’s bullying threat to arrest doctors who wrote recommendations
and rescind their federal license to prescribe controlled substances —
they were happy to do so.
With state law authorizing the treatment that he found most effective
and with the wherewithal to grow it at home, Peter McWilliams might have
been home free. But he wanted, as was his wont, to do more. So he made
an arrangement with another patient, Tod McCormick, for Tod to grow
different strains of marijuana, experiment to determine the effects of
different strains and different dosages on different diseases, and write
a book about the results. If marijuana, after more than 60 years of
federal prohibition, was going to become a medicine again (it was the
most-prescribed drug, by some accounts, by American doctors during the
19th century after being rediscovered by British doctors in India),
Peter wanted to play a part in developing systematic, scientific
evidence about its medicinal properties. Peter gave Tod a large advance
so he could rent a large, old and largely gutted house in Bel Air as a
But although their activities were perfectly legitimate under state
law and neither state nor local law enforcement officials bothered them,
Tod and Peter came to the attention of federal officials. First Tod was
arrested and charged with cultivation for sale as the “Bel Air Mansion
Pot Grower.” Peter defended Tod, and eventually began to explain that he
had financed the growing operation as part of a research program for a
book. For his trouble and honesty, he was arrested on Dec. 17, 1997, as
a “drug kingpin,” and federal agents confiscated a wide array of his
property, including his computers, one of whose hard disks contained the
book he was writing at the time. More complete information on all
aspects of the case is still up at
His financial situation at that point was nowhere near as strong as it had been at various times in his life. His mother and brother had to mortgage their homes to make his bail. One of the conditions of bail was that he not smoke marijuana. Federal Judge George King would not even entertain a medical-necessity argument. Since his loved ones’ homes were at stake, Peter abided by the order. But he paid a heavy price.
His viral load at the time of his arrest was down to undetectable levels. By November 1998 his viral load had soared to more than 256,000. In 1996, when he had developed the AIDS-related cancer, the viral load had been only 12,500. The government continued to administer urine tests. Unable to work because of the disease and the toll taken by the court battle, he was forced into bankruptcy.
He did develop various regimens, including prolonged bed rest and frequent soothing baths, that enabled him to keep his medications down for as long as an hour and a quarter. His viral load came down, but he was considerably weakened and wheelchair-bound most of the time. Still, he looked forward to going to court, presenting the information about his use of medical marijuana to a jury, being vindicated, and striking a blow for freedom.
Last November, however, Judge King ruled that at the trial no information would be allowed to be presented to a jury about his illnesses, about the fact that the government’s own research (most recently summarized in the March 1999 Institute of Medicine Report commissioned by the drug czar) showed that marijuana was efficacious in the treatment of the diseases, or even that California had a law that authorized certified patients to grow and use marijuana. It was to be a pot-growing case under federal law, plain and simple, with Peter cast in the role of financier and kingpin.
It is likely that this outrageous decision would have been overturned on appeal, especially since the Ninth Circuit federal appeals court had ruled in September that lower federal courts must be open to medical-necessity pleas even under federal law. But Peter and Tod were almost out of resources and very sick. They took a plea bargain. Peter hoped his incarceration could be served under house arrest, especially since there would be no way he could stick to the strict regimen that was permitting him to keep his medicine down (in the absence of the ability to use a medication proven effective as an anti-emetic) while in prison. A prison sentence would have amounted to a death sentence.
On Sunday, June 11 there was a fire in his home that destroyed his computers, including the book he had been writing about his ordeal that he had wanted to be his last salvo against the marijuana laws. He was depressed, and wouldn’t talk to anybody for several days. The following Wednesday, he choked on his own vomit in his bathroom. If he had been allowed to use marijuana he would almost certainly have been able to control the nausea that led to his death.
Through all of this, Peter retained a remarkably cheerful and optimistic outlook. He never succumbed to hate, and in the e-mail messages he was still able to send and receive prolifically, he often reminded his friends and supporters not to give in to the desire to seek vengeance. “My enemy is ignorance,” he would say, “not individuals.” During the dozens of phone conversations I had with him during the last couple of years he never once sounded as if he were complaining or seeking sympathy. His health situation was what it was, and the only thing was to understand it, accept it, deal with it, and try to take some positive steps in the direction of a freer society, so that others would not have to undergo what he had.
Peter McWilliams may have managed somehow to maintain a positive outlook and never to give up until the end. But while celebrating his life as, on balance, a joyful adventure on the road to a freer and more open society, it is important to remember that what the federal government did to Peter McWilliams was not just foolish and shortsighted but evil. I don’t know any other way to characterize a stubborn determination to prohibit very ill people from using a medication that helps them and has not killed a single person in thousands of years of use.
I don’t know if Judge King knows better, but I am utterly convinced that Barry McCaffrey and dozens of other drug warriors do, because they are forced to admit that the risk of medicinal use of marijuana to the patient is close to zero — when confronted by a questioner who actually knows something. Yet they continue their cruel policy on the medicinal use of marijuana, despite the evidence, despite the fact that the people (and the Hawaii legislature and governor on the day Peter McWilliams died) endorse medical marijuana whenever asked or given the chance to vote.
What kind of arrogant oligarchy is capable of such cruelty — and of such determination to ignore the wishes of the people to whom (in either a republic or a democracy) they are supposed to be beholden?