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Why Was Peter McWilliams Murdered?

by Paul Krassner

   In 1996, Peter McWilliams -- a Los Angeles author and publisher -- was diagnosed with cancer and AIDS. He survived the cancer and got the AIDS under control with pills that made him nauseous. Ironically, if he threw up his lunch, that regurgitation would also include the nausea-producing pills he needed in order to stay alive. However, if he smoked marijuana, it would not only increase his appetite, it would also counteract the nausea.

   If cancer and AIDS patient Peter McWilliams smoked marijuana, it would not only increase his appetite, it would also counteract the nausea caused by his medications.    That same year, California Proposition 215 was passed, legalizing marijuana for medical use when recommended by a physician. It had been recommended to McWilliams by four physicians. Cannabis club were opened up where AIDS patients could purchase marijuana. McWilliams devised a plan to supply marijuana to these buyers' cooperatives that were providing a legal service for their sick and dying customers, at reasonable prices in a pleasant setting.

   He hired Todd McCormick -- a cancer patient since the age of nine - to research and write a book, How to Grow Medical Marijuana. McCormick proceeded to grow 4,000 plants in a mansion known as the Cannabis Castle. But the DEA insisted that federal law superceded state law, and he was arrested in 1997. Federal prosecutors obtained an order forbidding a medical-marijuana defense -- leaving him with no defense at all -- and in order to avoid a mandatory ten-year minimum sentence McCormick pleaded guilty, and is currently serving a five-year sentence.

   In 1998, Peter McWilliams was arrested as the kingpin of this conspiracy to cultivate and distribute medical marijuana. His best-selling book, Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do), had chronicled the cruel absurdity of putting people in prison who had not harmed anyone. Now, not only had McWilliams not harmed anyone, he was trying to help others.

   Federal prosecutors obtained an order forbidding a medical-marijuana defense… leaving him with no defense at all.    But, like McCormick, he was not allowed a medical-marijuana defense and ultimately pleaded guilty. Furthermore, a federal judge prohibited him from smoking his medicine while he awaited sentencing, which was scheduled for August 15, 2000 - the second day of the Democratic convention in Los Angeles, so it was unlikely that there would be any media coverage of his incarceration.

   Anthropologists of the future will look back upon these times and wonder how they could have been so barbaric. Although seven states and Washington, D.C., have passed initiatives to legalize medical marijuana, Indiana congressman Mark Souder (known as "Mad Mark") claims that any effort to make medical marijuana legal "is just a phony excuse to be a pot-head."

   Basically, then, the war on drugs seems to be a war against pleasure. As long as any government can arbitrarily decide which drugs are legal, anybody behind bars for illegal drugs is a political prisoner. No wonder the propagandistic Partnership For a Drug Free America is funded by tobacco, alcohol and pharmaceutical corporations. I asked High Times editor Steve Hager for his overview. His reply:

   "My main focus is establishing the counterculture as a legitimate minority group whose basic rights have been denied. A major reason for the Drug War is the persecution of our culture. Marijuana is the sacrament of the counterculture. This will never change, and we will never accept the prohibition of our sacrament. How could one expect any legitimate spiritual movement to be forced into surrendering a sacrament? Marijuana has over a 5,000-year-old history of religious use in India.

   "Imagine if alcohol was outlawed and a group of Catholics began holding underground mass with real wine. Do you think they would be subjected to mandatory minimum sentences, forfeiture, losing their children? Yet this happens every day to devoted, peaceful members of our culture. Currently these people are being sold into slavery to corporations like Wackenhut, who have turned the privatized prison-industrial complex into the most profitable industry in America."

   Marijuana is the country's fourth-largest cash crop, after corn, soybeans and hay. There are 70 million Americans who have smoked marijuana. Eleven million still smoke it every month, and half of them smoke it every day. And they inhale. And they enjoy it. Imagine if alcohol was outlawed and a group of Catholics began holding underground mass with real wine. Do you think they would be subjected to mandatory minimum sentences, forfeiture, losing their children?    At the same time, marijuana arrests have accelerated during the last decade. FBI statistics indicate that in 1998 there were 682,885 pot busts, 88% for mere possession. Pot busts have more than doubled since 1990. Some 43,000 American citizens are currently in prison for marijuana, costing $7.5 billion a year of taxpayers' money.

   In federal prisons, the average drug offender spends more time imprisoned (82.2 months) than rapists (73.3 months). In California, more inmates are doing life terms for possession of marijuana than for murder, rape and robbery combined.

Marijuana is the country's fourth-largest cash crop, after corn, soybeans, and hay.    In the larger prison outside those walls, more and more companies are requiring employees to submit to random drug tests, and their privacy goes down the drain while their urine is sent to the lab. Rolling Stone and the New York Times are among the publications, which have such a policy. When a Times employee takes a drug test, the faucets are removed from the sinks in the bathroom so that the testee will not be able to dilute his or her urine with tap water.

   Peter McWilliams was subject to random drug tests for two years while his sentencing date was postponed over and over. His AIDS medications caused nausea, but he couldn't smoke marijuana to keep it down. And he vomited, and vomited, and vomited again. Every day.

   "The stomach acid that comes up along with everything else with the regularity of Old Faithful," he told me with a touch of mordant humor, "has eroded my teeth into spiky little remnants of their former selves -- my mouth resembles a photograph from The Amazing Ozark Mountain Book of Dental Oddities."

   He tried various techniques to keep the AIDS pills down a little longer before vomiting. In addition to large doses of Marinol, he added herbs to the mix, and then he would curl up in a fetal position in hot water. Gradually, over several months of trial and error, he was able to increase the length of time he could hold down his medications, from 30 minutes to an hour and fifteen minutes.

   "That 45-minute increase," he said, "is apparently enough for the medications to get into my system. But the procedure of keeping them down is agonizing, exhausting and debilitating, and I have to do it three times a day. It would be entirely unnecessary if I could use medical marijuana."

   On June 14, two months before he was due to be sentenced, McWilliams was found dead in his bathtub. He had died from asphyxiation. He had choked to death on his own vomit. He had been murdered -- depriving the ill of medicine they need is "depraved indifference" or Murder Two -- but by whom? And for what reason?

   I accuse President Bill Clinton, for coming out against medical marijuana, as if to say, "I feel your pain, I just don't want to help you relieve it."

   I accuse Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey, who, after medical-marijuana initiatives were passed in Arizona and California, proclaimed: "There is not a shred of scientific evidence that shows that smoked marijuana is useful or needed."

   I accuse California Governor Gray Davis, for opposing recommendations by his own Attorney General's Task Force on Medical Marijuana.

   I accuse Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jackie Chooljian and Mary Fulginiti, the prosecutors who sought to prevent the use of a medical-marijuana defense.

   I accuse Federal Judge George King, who denied Peter McWilliams -- slumping in his wheelchair in the courtroom -- his legal right to smoke medical marijuana.    I accuse Federal Judge George King, who denied Peter McWilliams -- slumping in his wheelchair in the courtroom -- his legal right to smoke medical marijuana.

    These individuals participated in an unspoken conspiracy, all for the same reason. And what was it that they had in common? They all wanted to keep their fucking jobs. They all wanted to advance in their careers. They all wanted prestige. They wanted to live in a nice house. They wanted to send their kids to college. They wanted to be responsible to their families. And the price was simply their own humanity.

   McWilliams' death, at the age of 50, occurred on the same day that the governor of Hawaii signed into law a medical-marijuana bill passed by the state legislature, making Hawaii the first state in the United States to authorize the medicinal use of marijuana through the legislature rather than by a vote of the people.

   That had been attempted twice in California, and although the legislature passed the bill in each case, then-Governor Pete Wilson vetoed it both times, and so the people decided to eliminate the middleman and passed a referendum.

   A few politicians have had the compassion and courage to speak out against the insanity of the war on drugs. I mean the war on some drugs. I mean the war on some human beings who use some drugs. Among such heroes: New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson (a Republican); he stated, "We're trying to get tougher with things that we got away with! And there's a hypocrisy to that, in my opinion."

   And California State Senator John Vasconcellos (a Democrat); he introduced legislation to implement recommendations whereby persons legally possessing ID cards would be immune from arrest under state law for possession, transportation, delivery or cultivation of medical marijuana. In July, that bill was passed.

   Also in July, the DEA -- forced by recent scientific evidence -- began legally binding procedures that will likely result in the end of marijuana prohibition. Meanwhile, like a pair of dinosaurs trying to survive, both major presidential candidates are drowning in chickenshit. Al Gore smoked pot, and George Bush snorted nepotism, but they have both taken public anti-medical-marijuana positions.

   Another presidential candidate, democratic socialist David McReynolds has come out as a pot-smoker. Indeed, his story about the relationship between marijuana and communication is included in my book, Pot Stories for the Soul.

   At the Green Party convention in July, Ralph Nader's opponents -- Jello Biafra (lead singer of The Dead Kennedys; political activist) and Steve Gaskin (founder of The Farm commune; author of Cannabis Spirituality) - each preceded Nader with a ten-minute speech. Biafra called the war on drugs "ethnic cleansing, American style." Gaskin, sad and angry over Peter McWilliams' death, spoke with great passion, declaring that it was "as if Barry McCaffrey came out with a pistol like that South Vietnamese general and executed him."

   Nader watched this on the TV monitor, and during his own speech -- clearly influenced by Gaskin's tribute to McWilliams, he proclaimed: "We've got to stop this drug war that does these horrible things to our people."

   Peter will be missed. He was the victim of a political assassination, but his inspiring legacy continues to live on.    Later, in his lengthy acceptance speech, Nader said: "At home, our criminal justice system, being increasingly driven by the corporate prison industry that wants ever more customers, grossly discriminates against minorities and is greatly distorted by the extremely expensive and failed war on drugs. These prisons often become finishing schools for criminal recidivists. At the same time, the criminal justice system excludes criminally behaving corporations and their well-defended executives."

   At the National Libertarian Party convention -- where presidential candidate Harry Browne came out firmly for decriminalization of marijuana -- Peter McWilliams became the posthumous winner of their Champion of Liberty Award. Peter will be missed. He was the victim of a political assassination, but his inspiring legacy continues to live on.

   Paul Krassner's latest book, Sex, Drugs and the Twinkie Murders, has just been published by Loompanics Unlimited; his new CD, Campaign in the Ass, has just been released by Artemis Records.

Winter 2000 Supplement * Loompanics Unlimited Archive