Medical use of marijuana goes on trial in Michigan
Ailments not justification for pot possession, judge tells Allen Park native with AIDS, cancer.
Peter McWilliams goes through photos in his living room Wednesday for a book about medical marijuana that he's working on.
By Charlie Cain / Detroit News Lansing Bureau Chief
National efforts to legalize marijuana for
medical purposes suffered twin setbacks
this week when Washington state voters
rejected a ballot question and a suburban
Detroit judge said medical necessity can't
be argued in a possession case.
Wednesday, a day after Washington voters decided not to let doctors recommend marijuana for treatment, Romulus District Judge Tina Green said a 48-year-old Allen Park native can't cite his cancer and AIDS conditions to justify the seven marijuana cigarettes police caught him with last year.
Peter McWilliams, a best-selling author of self-help books, said his lawyer will ask the judge to change her mind once more before a trial begins sometime later this year.
"I'm not guilty of anything other than trying to save my life. If I don't (combat nausea to) keep these anti-AIDS pills down, I don't stay alive," McWilliams said in an interview from his home. He now lives in Los Angeles. He faces a year in prison if convicted, though prosecutors say they have no interest in jailing him.
McWilliams' case symbolizes a growing debate over marijuana joints as a relief for severe nausea and pain.
Eight states let a doctor recommend or prescribe marijuana for patients suffering from AIDS, cancer, glaucoma and other severe ailments. But the federal government has taken a hard line, maintaining that its ban on marijuana supersedes state law.
Only in California, where voters approved Proposition 215 a year ago, are patients receiving legal marijuana -- though the Clinton administration is challenging that in courts.
In the spring of 1996, McWilliams was diagnosed as having non-Hodgkins lymphoma and AIDS. He started chemotherapy and radiation treatments and began taking AIDS pills three times a day. The life-extending medicine caused severe nausea, said McWilliams, who obtained legal marijuana on the advice of his doctor and smokes as much as an ounce each week.
After visiting family and friends in Detroit last December, McWilliams -- carrying marijuana legally obtained out west -- was arrested at Detroit Metro Airport.
Judge Green last week said McWilliams, whose brother Michael is a TV critic for The Detroit News, could base his defense on the drug's medical use. But Wednesday she reversed herself. "There is no way that this court can find that if Mr. McWilliams did not use marijuana that it would cause him serious bodily harm," she concluded. "I apologize to the attorneys. I don't like to change my mind."
Richard Padzieski, chief of operations for the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office, was pleased.
"We're all set to go," he said. "We're not necessarily looking for incarceration. But on the other hand, we are looking for people to follow the law."
His office twice offered plea agreements that would have resulted in several hundred dollars in court costs, but no record if he broke no further laws.
In the other setback for proponents of pot therapy, voters in Washington on Tuesday rejected a ballot proposal to allow marijuana as medicine. Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the vote shouldn't sidetrack the effort to bring legal marijuana to seriously ill patients.
"Whether the federal government likes it or not, medical marijuana will be an issue in the '98 election cycle," said St. Pierre, who notes that efforts to let voters decide continue in at least a half-dozen states.
The medical and scientific community is split over whether marijuana can offer relief to the sick or is "Cheech and Chong medicine," as some critics say.
A 1991 Harvard Medical School survey of 2,000 cancer specialists found that 44 percent had recommended marijuana to patients.
The American Medical Association this year stopped short of suggesting that doctors be allowed to prescribe marijuana to patients, but said physicians should be free to inform patients that marijuana might be a useful treatment.
U.S. drug policy chief Barry McCaffrey, in the wake of California's vote last year, warned the doctors who prescribe drugs could face criminal penalties and lose the right to prescribe drugs. McCaffrey said marijuana remains dangerous and the debate is nothing more than a smoke screen to win full legalization of the drug, outlawed by the federal government a half-century ago.
But a federal judge blocked the government from acting against California doctors who recommend pot to patients. That would violate their right to free speech, the judge said.
The New England Journal of Medicine weighed in this year, opining: "A federal policy that prohibits physicians from alleviating suffering by prescribing marijuana for seriously ill patients is misguided, heavy-handed and inhumane."
In Michigan, there is no current effort to legalize medical marijuana, though the state did allow it from 1979-87.
Michigan's law let medical marijuana be supplied to "cancer chemotherapy patients and glaucoma patients who are certified ... by a physician as being involved in a life-threatening or sense-threatening situation and who is not responding to conventional medical treatment." But since the federal government refused to supply marijuana to Michigan, the state got the drug from local law enforcers. Few patients participated in the short-lived program.
Gov. John Engler opposes medical marijuana on grounds that other drugs have been developed to take its place, but supported Michigan's former law.
In 1982, he co-sponsored a Senate resolution chiding the federal government for imposing "regulatory ploys and obscure bureaucratic devices ... (which) prevent patients from obtaining marijuana for legitimate medical applications."
Sparring over smoke
These arguments are voiced in the debate over marijuana as a medical tool.
* The public favors it, polls show.
* Many medical specialists think marijuana shows great promise in offering relief from nausea and pain to some patients suffering from cancer, AIDS, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy.
* If a patient eases pain from a terminal illness by using marijuana, society isn't harmed.
* Marijuana isn't more dangerous than alcohol or tobacco, and also should be legal for adults.
* It would send a mixed message to the public since the government campaigns to convince consumers that all smoking is bad and that marijuana is a dangerous drug.
* The federal government, which banned its use in 1937, still labels marijuana as a dangerous drug which contains hundreds of compounds, some suspected of causing cancer.
* Letting voters determine whether marijuana is a safe medicine is a bad public policy.
©Copyright 1997, The Detroit News