R.W. Bradford's "The Life and Death of Peter McWilliams"


   Another Casualty Of The War On Drugs

   On June 14, Natalie Fisher went to Peter McWilliams' home, where she worked as housekeeper to the wheelchair-bound victim of AIDS and cancer.  In the bathroom on the second floor, she found his life-less body.  He had choked to death on his own vomit.

   As regular readers of Liberty know, Peter, a world famous author* and a regular contributor to these pages, was diagnosed with AIDS and non-Hodgkins lymphoma in early 1996.  Like many people stricken with AIDS or cancer, he had great difficulty keeping down the drugs that controlled or mitigated those afflictions.  He began to smoke marijuana to control the drug-induced nausea.  It saved his life: by early 1998, both his cancer and his AIDS were under control.

   In 1996, California voters enacted a law legalizing the use of marijuana by people, like Peter, who needed it for medical reasons.  Peter was an enthusiastic supporter of the new law, both because he believed in maximizing human liberty and because marijuana had saved his life and was, indeed, keeping him alive.

   But Peter was more than an advocate.  After the Clinton administration announced it would ignore the state law and continue to prosecute marijuana users who needed the drug to stay alive, it remained very difficult for others who needed medical marijuana to get the drug.  So Peter helped finance the efforts of Todd McCormick to cultivate marijuana for distribution to those who needed it for medical reasons.

   His articulate advocacy of legalizing medical marijuana brought him to the attention of federal authorities, who got wind of Todd McCormick's attempt to grow marijuana for medicinal purposes and of Peter's involvement with it.  And it came to pass that in the early morning of December 17, 1997, federal agents invaded his home and business, and confiscated a wide array of his property ( including his computers, one of whose hard disks contained the book he was writing ).  In July 1998 they arrested him on charges of conspiring to grow marijuana.

   His mother and brother put up their homes as bond and he was released from jail to await his trial.  One of the conditions of his bail was that he smoke no marijuana.  Unwilling to risk the homes of his mother and brother, he obeyed the order.  His viral load, which had fallen to undetectable levels, now soared to dangerous levels:

   "Unable to keep down the life-saving prescription medications, by November 1998, four months after my arrest, my viral load soared to more than 256,000.  In 1996 when my viral load was only 12,500, I had already developed an AIDS-related cancer ....  Even so, the government would not yield.  It continued to urine test me.  If marijuana were found in my system, my mother and brother would lose their homes and I would be returned to prison" said Peter.

   Peter's health wasn't all that was ruined.  Unable to work because of the disease and facing mounting legal bills, he was forced into bankruptcy.  But he didn't give up: he experimented with various regimens and eventually managed to keep his medication down for as long as an hour and a quarter, long enough for some of the medication to work its way into his system.  But the process had weakened him to the point where he was wheelchair-bound.

   His publishing venture destroyed and his assets gone, Peter focused on his upcoming trial.  He relished the chance to defend himself in court: medical marijuana was legal under state law and he believed a spirited defense could both exonerate him and help establish a legal fight to grow marijuana for medical purposes.

   Last November, news came that would have crushed a lesser man: the judge in the case ruled that Peter could not present to the jury any information about his illness, the fact that the government's own research concludes that marijuana is virtually the only way to treat the illness, or that using marijuana for medical purposes was legal in California.

   Unable to defend himself against the government's charges, Peter concluded that he had no choice but to plea bargain.  He agreed to plead guilty, in hopes that any incarceration could be served under house arrest, since sending him to prison, where he would not be able to follow his lifesaving regimen, would be tantamount to sentencing him to death.

   On June 11, there was a fire in his home, which destroyed the letters to the judge that he had acquired and the computer containing the book he was writing on his ordeal.  Three days later, he died, apparently as a result of his inability to keep his medication down.

   When I heard that Peter had died I was grief-stricken.  I'd known him only for a couple of years, but that was more than enough for me to come to respect and love him.  I became acquainted with him shortly after the drug police raided his home, the first in the series of calamities that befell him.

   Three things about Peter were truly amazing.

   Despite the government's persecution, which resulted in the loss of virtually all his property, his freedom, and ultimately his life, he never descended into hatred.  Time and time again, he cautioned friends against falling victim to hate or giving in to the desire for revenge.  "My enemy is ignorance," he'd say, "not individuals."

   I was also astonished by his ability to focus on the future and not get depressed about the calamities that befell him.  I spoke to him dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times during his ordeal, and I do not recall a single time when he even remotely sounded down or acted as if he were seeking my sympathy.

   The third astonishing thing about Peter was his remarkable generosity of spirit.  He always offered help and encouragement to others, no matter what his own circumstances were.  A few months ago, I was contacted by a publisher with a request to reprint an article of Peter's that had appeared in Liberty.  The publisher was one of the few who routinely is willing to pay for reprint rights, so I called Peter with the good news, and asked him how much he'd like me to ask for his article.  "Nothing," he said.  "I want to encourage people to reprint my writing on the drug war." I reiterated that this publisher happily paid $100 to $200 for reprint rights, that it was very prosperous and that he could use the money.  ( By this time, Peter was so broke that he was asking friends to use his website as a portal to various shopping websites so that he would receive the small commissions that they offer.  ) But Peter would have none of it.  "We are in a war of ideas," he said.  "And I want my writing to have the widest possible effect."

   I must admit that when I learned the tragic news of Peter's death, my spirit was not so generous as his.  I thought about the judge who had denied him his day in court and had ordered him to forgo the medication that kept him alive.  I suppose he's happy, I said to myself, now that he's murdered Peter.

   I'm one of those libertarians who generally tries to look at government policies more as folly than as evil.  But sometimes, the evil that government does transcends simple folly.  Sometimes I have to be reminded that there is a real human cost of government.  It happened when I learned of the government's killing of 86 people at Waco and its murder of Vicki Weaver at Ruby Ridge.  And it happened with Peter, too.

   Peter never wanted to be a martyr.  But he wanted to live in a free country, where people respected each other's rights and choices, and he did what he thought was best to keep himself alive and to advance the cause of liberty.  He was one of the most joyous people I've ever known, a hero in every sense of the word.

   So rather than belabor his tragic death, Liberty will celebrate his life by publishing for the first time the full text of his address to the Libertarian Party National Convention in 1998.  It's vintage Peter McWilliams: funny, wise, charming, intelligent, full of piss and vinegar.

   I invite you to read and enjoy it -- and join with other people of good will in celebrating the life of this good, kind, decent, generous, and brilliant man.

   * He wrote several best-sellers, including some of the first books about using microcomputers, "How to Survive the Loss of Love" ( which sold more than four million copies, several books of poetry ( with total sales of nearly four million ), and "Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do", a brilliant analysis of consensual "crimes."