TCS Daily

The Killing of Peter McWilliams

By Ryan H. Sager - December 2, 2004 12:00 AM

As the Supreme Court considers the constitutionality of state medical-marijuana laws, Americans might want to pause to remember a man named Peter McWilliams. McWilliams was killed by the federal government on June 14, 2000.

No federal agent put a gun to McWilliams' head or beat him up or threw him into the line of fire, but he died at the government's hands, nonetheless, as sure as if he had been locked in a cell and denied food and water.

McWilliams, a Californian, a computer genius and a poet, had been suffering from AIDS and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma since 1996. And under California's Proposition 215, which passed in 1996 and legalized marijuana for medical purposes in the state, he used pot to suppress nausea and keep down his food and medication.

In what many consider to have been a politically motivated prosecution -- McWilliams was a popular author and medical-marijuana activist whose book, "Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do," argued fervently against the criminalization of consensual acts -- McWilliams' home was raided by federal agents in 1997, and he was charged as a drug kingpin with conspiracy to sell marijuana.

A federal judge ruled that McWilliams could not rest his defense on his illness or on Proposition 215, which made his actions legal in his state, because federal drug laws superseded California's. McWilliams pled guilty to avoid a 10-year mandatory-minimum prison sentence.

While out on bail and awaiting sentencing, prohibited from using medical marijuana, McWilliams died. He was found dead in his bathroom in Los Angeles at age 50. He choked to death on his own vomit -- unable to keep down his medication.

Yes, this is an emotional issue, and people's views on it are clouded on all sides.

To drug warriors, medical marijuana is nothing but a Trojan horse -- fronted by the chronically and terminally ill -- that hippies want to use to quietly begin legalizing drugs. To hippies -- well, when the drug warriors are right, they're right.

To liberals, like those on The New York Times editorial page, medical marijuana sounds like a great idea -- but they don't want this states' rights thing taken too far, lest the federal government be prevented from intruding some time in the future, when the Times wants it to. To conservatives, like those in the Bush administration, states' rights are great and all -- unless the particular states in questions aren't far enough to the right.

So, who can be believed? Who is arguing in good faith? There are always the patients themselves.

While various groups with various agendas argue their various points in the debate over medical marijuana, there's one group whose interests are simple to understand: those suffering from AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, muscular dystrophy and other ailments that can find some relief from marijuana.

These people are not hippies trying to get around our federal drug laws to get high (hippies and all other Americans already get high whenever they want to), and they're not political activists trying to roll back the powers of the federal government (they'd send checks to the libertarian Cato Institute if they wanted to do that). They're just people who have been subjected to terrible suffering but have also found something that helps them.

Marijuana is not a traditional drug, and therefore the prohibitionists have demanded proof of its medical properties. At the same time, of course, the federal government has made it all but impossible to study it.

The burden of proof, however, should be on those who seek to prohibit sick people from putting a substance known to be relatively harmless into their bodies. Patients who rely on medical marijuana -- and I've talked to some -- by and large would rather not. These are often elderly people, even veterans, who would greatly prefer more conventional means of treatment. But what works, works, and they're not willing to suffer needlessly.

In oral arguments on Tuesday, the Supreme Court seemed very skeptical that states have any right to carve holes in federal drug policy. Such a conclusion would show that the conservative court's commitment to federalism is weak at best -- opportunistic at worst.

But patients don't care about the legal questions, here.

What they care about is that a way be found to prevent them from meeting the same fate as Peter McWilliams -- being hunted by federal drug agents, denied their medicine and consigned to suffering and/or death.

If democratic initiatives in 10 states are held invalid by the Supreme Court, this battle will move to Congress. Then, our nation's legislators will have to decide whether they have the stomach to kill it in broad daylight.

Ryan Sager is a member of the editorial board of The New York Post. He also edits the blog Miscellaneous Objections and can be reached at


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