AIDS Patient Pins Hopes on Pot Ruling

Medicine: A Laurel Canyon man says a court decision last week may save his life. The U.S. appeals judges found that marijuana is legal for the seriously ill.

September 20, 1999, Page A-3

By MARY CURTIUS, Times Staff Writer  

For Peter McWilliams, a federal appellate court's ruling last week that seriously ill people should be allowed to use marijuana with a doctor's recommendation may be a lifeline thrown to a dying man.

    For more than a year, as he has awaited trial on a variety of marijuana-related charges, the AIDS patient has been barred by a federal judge from smoking the medical marijuana he says he must have to survive. McWilliams is hoping the decision by a panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will persuade the judge to change his mind.

    "I meet every single one of the conditions the judges set forth for when a person should be able to argue a medical necessity defense for using marijuana," McWilliams, 50, said in a telephone interview from his Laurel Canyon home. "Nothing else works for me. I am in a life or death situation, I am under a doctor's care and I have tried every available alternative."

    McWilliams' attorney, Thomas Ballanco, intends to register those arguments this week when he appears before the judge who freed McWilliams on $250,000 bail. He will ask, yet again, that the book publisher be allowed to smoke marijuana while he awaits trial. If U.S. District Judge George King declines, Ballanco said, he will appeal to the same three-member panel that ruled that medical necessity is an acceptable defense in federal court.

    Attorneys representing defendants in other federal marijuana cases brought since Californians passed Proposition 215 said that they, too, plan to mount appeals based on the 9th Circuit panel's decision. The state law provides for patients with a doctor's recommendation to smoke marijuana for a variety of illnesses.

    The stakes are especially high in McWilliams' case.

    "I worry that he won't even make it to trial, much less through trial," Ballanco said.

    Diagnosed with AIDS in 1996, McWilliams said he tried every available anti-nausea medication on the market before smoking marijuana to quell the nausea caused by the combination of powerful drugs he must take to keep the AIDS virus in check. Only marijuana, McWilliams said, made it possible for him to keep the drugs down.

    When he was arrested in July 1998, McWilliams had an undetectable AIDS viral load in his bloodstream. But one of the terms of his bail was that he not smoke marijuana. Another term was that he submit to random urine tests.

    By last fall, McWilliams' doctor said, the publisher's viral load had soared dramatically.

    "Since he no longer had access to the drug, he reports frequent vomiting," said Daniel Bowers, a family physician who treats about 250 AIDS patients at his Los Angeles clinic. "He is not keeping down his pills and his viral load has risen to above 250,000." At that level of viral presence in the blood, McWilliams' immune system is highly compromised, his physician says.

    "He is stable at the moment, but statistically, we know that the longer the viral load stays unchecked, the greater the risk that the condition will deteriorate," Bowers said.

    Ballanco has gone to court several times seeking to have McWilliams' bail conditions altered so that his client can smoke marijuana. Each time, the court has said it cannot authorize someone to break the law.

    But in last week's decision involving marijuana clubs, the federal appellate court said that a lower court erred in not allowing club operators to offer the defense that smoking marijuana is a medical necessity for some people.

    U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer had ordered several Northern California clubs closed last year after the federal government filed a lawsuit alleging that they violated the federal Controlled Substances Act. Since the 1996 passage of Proposition 215, federal prosecutors have maintained that marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

    Last week, the appeals court ordered Breyer to consider modifying his order closing the Northern California clubs to allow them to sell marijuana to seriously ill patients.

    "The government . . . has yet to identify any interest it may have in blocking the distribution of cannabis to those with medical needs," the court said in a unanimous opinion.

    "We're not going to have any comment on this week's 9th Circuit ruling," said Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, where McWilliams' case is being handled. Mrozek said McWilliams' case is different from those of the closed cannabis clubs. McWilliams is accused of financing several growers, his co-defendants, who the government said were cultivating more than 6,000 marijuana plants to sell to marijuana clubs.

    "I've consistently characterized this as that of a commercial marijuana cultivation operation. McWilliams was the money man," Mrozek said.

    McWilliams denied that he was financing a marijuana growing operation and said he will deal with the allegations in court. Until then, he said, his primary focus is on staying alive.

    He said he is now confined to a wheelchair, sleeps 18 hours a day and rarely leaves his home.

    "When your viral load is 250,000, Armageddon is being fought inside you," he said.