January 22, 1998




In an apparently orchestrated effort to suppress medical marijuana advocate and vocal DEA critic Peter McWilliams, the DEA momentarily impounded his car. This triggered a clause in the lease agreement stating that if a car is impounded by law enforcement, the lease is cancelled. The leasing company demanded full payment of the lease amount—almost $50,000—that McWilliams did not have. Unpaid, this is reported as a lease default, effectively destroying McWilliams' credit.

"I leased the car—which is really a small truck—to transport me to and from medical treatments should my condition worsen," said McWilliams, who was diagnosed with AIDS and cancer in March 1996. He uses medical marijuana to control nausea, a side effect of his medical treatment. "Now I don't have the car, and no credit to get another." McWilliams worries his credit card will be canceled, and perhaps even the mortgage on his home.

The DEA impounded the car, which was on loan to a friend, on December 14, 1997, just three days before nine DEA agents searched McWilliams' home and publishing company, seizing the computer containing McWilliams' soon-to-be-published book, A Question of Compassion: And AIDS-Cancer Patient Explores Medical Marijuana. The book contains passages critical of the DEA. No drugs were found in the car.

The DEA is apparently investigating McWilliams for cultivating medical marijuana, or "conspiring" to cultivate marijuana, both of which are specifically permitted medical marijuana patients under California's Proposition 215, now The Compassionate Use Act of 1996.

The DEA never informed McWilliams of the impounding. The DEA released the car to the leaseholder, Lexus Financial Services, which would not return the car to McWilliams unless he paid $47,802.25. Further, if the amount were not paid immediately, the car would be auctioned and reported to credit bureaus as McWilliams breaking the lease. "I still wanted the car. I was still prepared to pay for it," said McWilliams. Now, because of the DEA, Lexus takes it back and is telling creditors that I broke the lease."

Disbelieving this Kafakaesque turn of events, McWilliams wrote a letter to the president of Lexus America, James Press, explaining the situation. Nancy Tippett, Customer Service Manager of Lexus Financial Services, responded for Mr. Press:

Lexus Financial Services has had an opportunity to carefully review your concerns regarding the seizure of you vehicle by the Drug Enforcement Administration. While LFS empathizes with your situation, LFS cannot agree to reinstate your lease account. Pursuant to paragraph 20 of your lease, subjecting the vehicle to seizure or impound for any reason is a default under your contract.

On further investigation, McWilliams discovered that this is a routine harassment technique of the DEA. "Although few consumers know it, almost every car or truck lease has a clause saying that if the DEA impounds your car for any reason, even for an hour, the lease is cancelled, and it all goes on your credit report." said McWilliams. "This can begin a domino effect in people's lives—loss of transportation, loss of credit, loss of housing—that leaves some people destitute. All this without a search warrant, without a charge, without even an explanation. It's frightening the power the DEA has to be judge, jury, and executioner of anyone it finds inconvenient."

McWilliams has been "inconvenient" to the DEA since the 1993 publication of his Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do: The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in Our Free Country a book sharply critical of the War on Drugs and praised by Milton Freidman, Hugh Downs, Archbishop Tutu, and Sting. McWilliams founded the Medical Marijuana Magazine Online in March 1997.

McWilliams also recently learned the DEA has called in an IRS Special Agent to investigate McWilliams and his publishing company, Prelude Press, Inc. "First the DEA, then the IRS, now LEXUS," said McWilliams. "What's next?"

The DEA December 1997 seizure of the computer containing McWilliams' latest book has been widely denounced by freedom-of-speech and freedom-of-the-press advocates, from the ACLU to William F. Buckley, Jr. Mr. Buckley, who remarked the seizure was "the equivalent of entering the New York Times and walking away with the printing machinery, " wrote in his January 6, 1998, syndicated column:

There is the federal war on drugs, with General Barry McCaffrey up there like George S. Patton defying all obstacles to pressing his war. The difference is that Patton succeeded and McCaffrey is not succeeding and never will. Anthony Lewis of the New York Times reminds us that in 1980 the Feds spent $4 billion on the drug war, now $32 billion and the number of people in jail on drug charges went up by the same multiple of eight: from 50,000 to 400,000. How to proceed?

Not, one hopes, with more dawn break-ins and removal of computers. Peter McWilliams reports an ironic turn. For his illness he smokes every day. But after you do that for a few weeks you cease to get a high. Marijuana becomes just something that stops nausea, eases pain, reduces interocular pressure, relaxes muscles, and takes the "bottom" out of a depression. So where do we go from here? To jail?

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