McWilliams Remembered

By: Paul Krassner (thank you, Paul!)

Peter McWilliams has been dead for over a decade. I don't believe in an afterlife, but his legacy as a prolific author serves as one. Countless readers of his work continue to be awakened and influenced by his information and insights. With empathy and wit, he helped close the gap between the value systems of mainstream society and the counterculture.

For those of us who knew him, the loss had an extra dimension. He was a generous friend, gifting me in 1984 with my first computer. My anthology, Pot Stories For the Soul, published by High Times, began: “This book is dedicated to Peter McWilliams, whose creative and compassionate leadership in the medical marijuana movement has continued to be inspiring and invigorating.”

He was so pleased that the collection was the winner of the Firecracker Alternative Book Award and also became a Quality Paperback Book Club selection. And when attorneys for the authors of Chicken Soup For the Soul sent a warning “cease and desist” letter, I recall his uproarious laughter when I observed, "Even though theologians and scientists alike don't know where the soul resides, it can be copyrighted."

My wife Nancy and I used to drive up to Peter's home at the top of a hill in Los Angeles, then order Chinese food and watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on his gigantic TV screen. We attended his courtroom appearances and perceived the way ambitious, puritan prosecutors were prone to use him as a stepping stone to advance their own careers.

At an anti-prohibition rally on the lawn of the Federal Building in Los Angeles, I introduced him to Dennis Peron, who became co-author of Prop. 215 -- the "Compassionate Use Act" of 1996 -- a California law legalizing medical use of cannabis. Peter suffered from AIDS and cancer.

“Something that a lot of people don’t realize,” he told me, “is that when you smoke marijuana regularly -- several times a day -- it loses its euphoric effect. The medical benefits continue–-relief of nausea, pain (physical or emotional), spasticity, excessive eye pressure (glaucoma) and so on -- but the euphoric effects go away. While I was using marijuana to treat my nausea, I can’t tell you how much I missed getting high.

“Although I’d smoke it several times a day, the average high school student was getting high more times a month than I was. That’s because after the first month, I never got high, and I really enjoy marijuana’s high. Simply put, recreational marijuana you use to get high; medical marijuana you use to get by.”

When Peter got arrested -- and was forced to stop taking his medicine -- he hoped to be sentenced to home detention with an ankle bracelet for electronic monitoring, while simultaneously trying to prepare himself for five years’ incarceration in a federal prison. Two months before he was due to be sentenced, he was found dead in his bathtub. He had died from asphyxiation, choking to death on his own vomit.

I told this to Ken Kesey, and, with his uncanny ability to cross-fertilize compassion with irreverence, he responded, “Well, I would rather choke on my own vomit than on somebody else’s.”

That year, at the National Libertarian Party convention -- where presidential candidate Harry Browne came out firmly for decriminalization of marijuana -- Peter became the posthumous winner of their Champion of Liberty Award. He remains in my life as a touchstone of integrity and a practitioner of enthusiasm.

During the last year of his life, we began collaborating on a screenplay about cyber war, his concept of a movie which has turned out to be prescient, as indicated by a recently published book, Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It, by Richard Clarke, former Special Advisor to the President on cyber security. I’m sure that Peter’s ashes swirled with delight in his urn when the truth behind international charades and criminality was revealed by WikiLeaks.

Ironically, science-fiction writer Harlan Ellison wrote an anti-marijuana introduction to Pot Stories For the Soul, available at paulkrassner.com.