June 24, 2000
Peter McWilliams is dead.
Author, poet, publisher.
Particular focus of interest? A federal judge in California
(George King) would decide in a few weeks how long a sentence to hand down, and whether to send McWilliams to prison or let him serve his sentence at home.
What was his offense? He collaborated in growing marijuana plants.
What was his defense? Well, the judge wouldn't allow him to plead his defense to the jury. If given a chance, the defense would have argued that under Proposition 215, passed into California constitutional law in 1996, infirm Californians who got medical relief from marijuana were permitted to use it. The judge also forbade any mention that McWilliams suffered from AIDS and cancer, and got relief from the marijuana.
What was he doing when he died? Vomiting. The vomiting hit him while in his bathtub, and he choked to death. Was there nothing he might have done to still the impulse to vomit? Yes, he could have taken marijuana; but the judge's bail terms forbade him to do so, and he submitted to weekly urine tests to confirm that he was living up to the terms of his bail.
Did anybody take note of the risk he was undergoing? He took Marinol -- a proffered, legal substitute, but reported after using it that it worked for him only about one-third of the time. When it didn't work, he vomited.
Was there no public protest against the judge's ruling? Yes. On June 9, the television program 20/20 devoted a segment to the McWilliams plight. Commentator John Stossel summarized: "McWilliams is out of prison on the condition that he not smoke marijuana, but it was the marijuana that kept him from vomiting up his medication. I can understand that the federal drug police don't agree with what some states have decided to do about medical marijuana, but does that give them the right to just end-run those laws and lock people up?"
Shortly after the trial last year, Charles Levendosky, writing in the Ventura County (Calif.) Star, summarized: "The cancer treatment resulted in complete remission." But only the marijuana gave him sustained relief from the vomiting that proved mortal.
Is it being said, in plain language, that the judge's obstinacy resulted in killing McWilliams? Yes. A Libertarian Party press release has made exactly that charge. "McWilliams was prohibited from using medical marijuana -- and being denied access to the drug's anti-nausea properties almost certainly caused his death." Reflecting on the judge's refusal to let the jury know that there was understandable reason for McWilliams to believe he was acting legally, I ended a column in November by writing, "So, the fate of Peter McWilliams is in the hands of Judge King. Perhaps the cool thing for him to do is delay a ruling for a few months, and just let Peter McWilliams die." Well, that happened on June 14.
The struggle against a fanatical imposition of federal laws on marijuana will continue, as also on the question whether federal laws can stifle state initiatives. Those who believe the marijuana laws are insanely misdirected have a martyr.
Peter was a wry, mythogenic guy, humorous, affectionate, articulate, shrewd, sassy. He courted anarchy at the moral level. His most recent book (his final book) was called Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do. We were old friends, and I owe my early conversion to word processing to his guidebook on how to do it. Over the years we corresponded, and he would amiably twit my conservative opinions.
When I judged him to have gone rampant on his own individualistic views in his book, I wrote him to that effect. I cherish his reply -- nice acerbic deference, the supreme put-down:
"Please remember the Law of Relativity as applied to politics: In order for you to be right, at least someone else must be wrong. Your rightness is only shown in relation to the other's wrongness. Conversely, your rightness is necessary for people like me to look truly wrong. Before Bach, people said of bad organ music, `That's not quite right.' After Bach, people said flatly, `That's wrong.' This allowed dedicated composers to grow, and cast the neophytes back to writing how-to-be-happy music. So, thank me for my wrongness, as so many reviews of my book will doubtless say, `People should read more of a truly great political commentator: William F. Buckley Jr.' "
Imagine such a spirit ending its life at 50, just because they wouldn't let him have a toke. We have to console ourselves with the comment of the two prosecutors. They said they were "saddened" by Peter McWilliams' death. Many of us are -- by his death...and by the causes of it.