Leave the Birds of Paradise Alone
Syndicated Internationally by Universal Press Syndicate,
By William F. Buckley Jr
August 16, 1998
The general mess created by our
drug laws has reached a tropical low in Los Angeles, where the storm center
gathers over the head of Peter McWilliams.
Here is the political background:
In November 1996, the California
voters endorsed a plebiscite (Proposition 215) that authorizes the purchase of
marijuana by any Californian with a doctorís recommendation. Doctors are
supposed to write out that prescription only when cannabis provides unique
relief. That law conflicted with federal statutes that make the smoking of
marijuana a crime at any time, including - to observe the language - on your
The question immediately arose:
What do we do about these conflicting jurisdictions? Everybody waited for
everybody else to act. The most that Attorney General Dan Lungren would do (he
is running for governor) was promise to observe the new law
But of course the reciprocal gears
of justice do not here interlock glibly. The marijuana lobby in California is
sincerely interested in making the weed available to the sick, who are said to
profit greatly from it. But the marijuana lobby in California is also sincerely
interested in anybodyís getting marijuana who wants marijuana, and the
political story here took flesh and blood in Peter McWilliams.
McWilliams is a middle-aged
literary man-about-town. He has written 30 books that range in concern from
poetry to love to computers to moral anarchy. He is a self described libertarian
who believes that no law should be passed that gets in the way of anybody doing
anything he wants to do, provided it doesnít hurt somebody else; and that such
laws as are on the books that conflict with libertarian doctrine should be
treated only with just such as much respect as is necessary to keep you out of
On July 23, the feds concluded that
McWilliams and partners were not sufficiently complying with the law.
McWilliams, who has always appreciated the lighter side of life and thought, had
lent money from his tiny publishing firm to an entrepreneur who used it to
nurture 4,000 marijuana plants.
Why? Well, if a doctor is entitled
under the law to prescribe marijuana, then he has to get it somewhere, does he
not? Parthenogenesis wonít give you fresh supplies of marijuana, even in
So the feds announced themselves at
6 in the morning, with handcuffs, and took away not only McWilliams but also his
computer with all its records. They demanded bail of $250,000. His lawyer
pleaded against the draconian extreme of the bail demanded. The defense was
perfectly glad to give up Peterís passport. Did anybody really think he would
not show up at his trial?
Pressures of another kind were
inflicted. McWilliams has AIDS and also a form of lymphoma. The treatment
prescribed by his doctor is complex and delicately balanced and is required six
times every day. The failure of the prison authorities to give him the doses as
called for has resulted in frequent nausea, no trivial complaint given that in
that condition, those who suffer from that combination of maladies McWilliams
suffers from run the risk of contracting a terminal case of tuberculosis.
The meltdown is therefore now
scheduled. A few months from now, McWilliams and his fellow defendants will
insist that they were not guilty of any criminal intent. No money changed hands.
True, McWilliams did at one point pass off the wisecrack that he wished to
become the "Bill Gates of medical marijuana." But you donít go to
prison for making wild statements about a fantasy life, any more than Bill
Clinton goes to prison for making wild statements about celibate behavior.
But in ruling on McWilliams vs. the
United States, prosecutors are going to have to face headlong the California
argument. At one level, California will argue the Ninth and 10th level,
Amendments to the Constitution, which prohibit federal activity in areas
reserved to the states under the Constitution.
That defense will be half-hearted,
because the justice establishment in California never liked Proposition 215, and
donít like McWilliams, who is an enthusiast for marijuana, which he proclaims
(in publications protected by the First Amendment) as suitable to give relief
for most adult aches and pains.
It will be a very interesting
trial, and it is likely that many institutions will weigh in with amici curiae
pleading their own judgments of law, conflicts, drugs and liberty. Meanwhile,
one hopes that Peter McWilliams, something if a bird of paradise, is left alone
to take proper care of himself.