Los Angeles Times

A Poet in Exile

By: Al Martinez (pictured, right)

Sunday, April 4, 1999  

Metro Section, front page

 Note to those outside L.A.: Al Martinez is one of the most beloved and popular columnists in Los Angeles.

Peter McWilliams lives in a house overlooking Laurel Canyon with a view that stretches past the wooded hills all the way to the clustered towers of downtown.

    Frank Lloyd Wright called it the most inspirational site in Southern California, but it doesn't always feel that way to McWilliams.

    It has become a kind of prison for the 49-year-old writer-publisher who hasn't been out of it since February. He doesn't have many guests over either, because his immune system is almost nonexistent and flu could kill him.

    McWilliams is dying of AIDS, but the Feds won't let him smoke marijuana to ease his pain and nausea, even though California's voters legalized its use for medicinal purposes three years ago.

    As far as Washington is concerned it's the devil weed and it's illegal, and McWilliams can writhe in hell for all anyone seems to care. He's just a human being in pain, and the law, like Holy Writ, is above all that.

    Even a recent report by the Institute of Medicine that found marijuana useful in treating pain, nausea and appetite loss hasn't changed the mind of federal drug czar Barry McCaffrey. He offered the equivalent of a shrug and ordered another study.

    So McWilliams sits up there like a poet in exile in a house with a view that's almost spiritual, counting the days and the ironies that round out what could be the fading seconds of his life.

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    He was indicted by a federal grand jury last July for conspiring to possess, manufacture and distribute marijuana. The charges came a year after federal agents raided the Bel-Air mansion of medical marijuana advocate Todd McCormick and found more than 4,000 cannabis plants.


They said McWilliams financed the operation through his half a dozen or so books, including "Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do," a learned and often wry treatise on the absurdity of consensual crimes.

    He's out on $250,000 bail on the condition that he not smoke marijuana, a deprivation which, he says, has aggravated his already frail condition and made his life a kind of nausea-tortured hell. The trial is set for September.

    "They're making me out to be some kind of drug kingpin and I'm not," he said the other day in his hilltop home. A haze lay over the view, blurring the outlines of the downtown towers.

    McWilliams says he hadn't smoked marijuana for years until he came down with AIDS. Diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1996, he tried a joint to ease the side effects of chemotherapy, and it worked like a miracle drug.

    "I took one hit and the nausea began going away. Using marijuana, I relaxed, regained my appetite and even wrote a book. I sailed through chemo after that. No doubt about it, it was the marijuana. I saw the truth in something. I saw suffering turn around."

    Since the court order prohibiting him from using the drug, McWilliams says, he's lost 30 pounds, his immune system has crashed and, because of the chemical cocktail he takes to treat AIDS, he lives with nausea every moment of his life.

    The law, he says, is killing him.

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    Not everyone wants Peter McWilliams to suffer. Not the judge who, in seeking a solution, asked the federal prosecutors to "help me struggle." Not the prosecutors who revealed their own human sympathies in court but insisted they must adhere to the letter of the law.

    Voters in California and five other states also expressed compassion by allowing the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Even in the face of mighty campaigns to curb drug use, they understood the racking, debilitating effects of pain and the existence of a weapon to fight it.

    Dying is a journey we take alone, a scary path toward a darkness impossible to fathom. The emotional trauma associated with that final walk is by itself enough to shrink the will of anyone who faces it. Physical pain lays another heavy burden on the trip.

    I'm not a big advocate of drugs. I've seen too many young people turn bleary-eyed sneaking joints as a way of coping and I've seen them pay a heavy price for it. But I also see no need to deprive anyone of a medicine that will ease one's final days.

    This isn't a drug-free society. We sell booze over a bar, painkillers over a counter and rivers of prescription chemicals at pharmacies to alleviate just about every symptom imaginable. Hypocrisy drapes like a shroud over those who pop pills and damn medical marijuana as a cultural evil.

    I doubt that Peter McWilliams is a drug king, but that's not for me to determine. I do know that he's a prisoner of feuding disciplines that have subjugated compassion for statutes and left him dying in pain on a hilltop.

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