by William F. Buckley, Jr.
Long live California, even if we aren't always sorry we don't live there. The news two days ago was something on the order of a Whiskey Rebellion mounted by Californians who want to smoke their cigarettes, dammit, and to hell with that new law that makes smoking illegal except in your own cellar. Where will it end? The scent of rebellion has reached New York City, where the mayor has hesitated to sign the new law making it illegal to advertise cigarettes within a thousand feet of a school-building. Do we have the beginning of a national movement?
And of course California is the crucible of the medical marijuana movement. That mess makes the Augean stables look like spilt tea. What happened is Proposition 215, passed in November of 1996. What it says is that a doctor can authorize in writing or orally the use of marijuana by any patient seeking relief from the assorted pains marijuana usefully addresses; and authorized patients may cultivate their own supply of marijuana. The law has been criticized for reasons implausible and plausible. It is, really, quite dumb for lay critics of marijuana to prattle on about how there are other means (pills) to bring equivalent relief to those who suffer. That question is as easily disposed of as taking the testimony of one or one hundred people who have tried the pill without effect, but get relief from smoking marijuana. On the other hand it is obviously true that people who egged on Proposition 215 professing only concern for the afflicted are, many of them, just plain rooters for marijuana legalization.
Which brings the story to Peter McWilliams. I have for him the reverence you have (those of you who use word processors) for the person who introduced you to the computer. He wrote a book about computers so lucid and engaging it became a best-seller. He went on to become a syndicated columnist on cyberworld, but simultaneously he pressed other pursuits, poetical, photographic, and philosophical. He is the absolute Number One anarchist in America on matters having to do with personal conduct. He has paid a heavy price for pursuing his passions, suffering now from AIDS and from cancer.
Now Peter McWilliams is a publisher (Prelude Press) whose books have made ten appearances on the New York Times best-seller list, and this time around he retained one Todd McCormick to do a book on marijuana growing -- for the afflicted. Mr. McCormick proceeded to grow, in a pasture behind a little house in Bel Air purchased with money advanced by McWilliams, not one marijuana plant but four thousand. McCormick had had experience in Amsterdam and was engaged in writing a book on the general subject. Bang! Six thirty in the morning, nine DEA agents crash into McWilliams' house finding him at work on his computer. They simultaneously tell him he is not under arrest and handcuff him. They spend three hours going over every piece of paper in his house (they find one ounce of marijuana, which is within the California legal limit) and walk away with his computer. That is the equivalent of entering the New York Times and walking away with the printing machinery.
Well, the ACLU, which is right twice a day, is on to the McWms' ((sic)) case and is asking the right questions and there will be interminable arguments and counter-arguments, and a certain amount hangs on the outcome, given that a finding of guilt on all counts including conspiracy to manufacture and sell marijuana could put McWilliams away with a life sentence and a four million dollar fine. There are those who believe that is going too far; on the other hand there are also those who believe that 24 hours in the cooler is also going too far, to say nothing of nine agents at 6:30 A. M. barging into your house with handcuffs.
There is, obviously, a judicial shortcircuit in play here. California says something that sounds like Okay. On the one hand there is the federal war on drugs, with General Barry McCaffrey up there like George S. Patton defying all obstacles to pressing his war. The difference is that Patton succeeded and McCaffrey is not succeeding and never will. Anthony Lewis of the New York Times reminds us that in 1980 the Feds spent $4 billion on the drug war, now $32 billion and the number of people in jail on drug charges went up by the same multiple of eight: from 50,000 to 400,000. How to proceed?
Not, one hopes, with more dawn break-ins and removal of computers. Peter McWilliams reports an ironic turn. For his illness he smokes every day. But after you do that for a few weeks you cease to get a high. Marijuana becomes just something that stops nausea, eases pain, reduces interocular pressure, relaxes muscles, and takes the "bottom" out of a depression. So where do we go from here? To jail?