Peter McWilliams lives in a house overlooking Laurel Canyon with a view
that stretches past the wooded hills all the way to the clustered towers
Frank Lloyd Wright called it the most
inspirational site in Southern California, but it doesn't always feel
that way to McWilliams.
It has become a kind of prison for the
49-year-old writer-publisher who hasn't been out of it since February.
He doesn't have many guests over either, because his immune system is
almost nonexistent and flu could kill him.
McWilliams is dying of AIDS, but the Feds
won't let him smoke marijuana to ease his pain and nausea, even though
California's voters legalized its use for medicinal purposes three years
As far as Washington is concerned it's the
devil weed and it's illegal, and McWilliams can writhe in hell for all
anyone seems to care. He's just a human being in pain, and the law, like
Holy Writ, is above all that.
Even a recent report by the Institute of
Medicine that found marijuana useful in treating pain, nausea and
appetite loss hasn't changed the mind of federal drug czar Barry
McCaffrey. He offered the equivalent of a shrug and ordered another
So McWilliams sits up there like a poet in
exile in a house with a view that's almost spiritual, counting the days
and the ironies that round out what could be the fading seconds of his
* * * He was indicted by a
federal grand jury last July for conspiring to possess, manufacture and
distribute marijuana. The charges came a year after federal agents
raided the Bel-Air mansion of medical marijuana advocate Todd McCormick
and found more than 4,000 cannabis plants.
They said McWilliams financed the
operation through his half a dozen or so books, including "Ain't
Nobody's Business If You Do," a learned and often wry treatise on
the absurdity of consensual crimes.
He's out on $250,000 bail on the condition
that he not smoke marijuana, a deprivation which, he says, has
aggravated his already frail condition and made his life a kind of
nausea-tortured hell. The trial is set for September.
"They're making me out to be some
kind of drug kingpin and I'm not," he said the other day in his
hilltop home. A haze lay over the view, blurring the outlines of the
McWilliams says he hadn't smoked marijuana
for years until he came down with AIDS. Diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's
lymphoma in 1996, he tried a joint to ease the side effects of
chemotherapy, and it worked like a miracle drug.
"I took one hit and the nausea began
going away. Using marijuana, I relaxed, regained my appetite and even
wrote a book. I sailed through chemo after that. No doubt about it, it
was the marijuana. I saw the truth in something. I saw suffering turn
Since the court order prohibiting him from
using the drug, McWilliams says, he's lost 30 pounds, his immune system
has crashed and, because of the chemical cocktail he takes to treat
AIDS, he lives with nausea every moment of his life.
The law, he says, is killing him.
* * * Not everyone wants
Peter McWilliams to suffer. Not the judge who, in seeking a solution,
asked the federal prosecutors to "help me struggle." Not the
prosecutors who revealed their own human sympathies in court but
insisted they must adhere to the letter of the law.
Voters in California and five other states
also expressed compassion by allowing the use of marijuana for medical
purposes. Even in the face of mighty campaigns to curb drug use, they
understood the racking, debilitating effects of pain and the existence
of a weapon to fight it.
Dying is a journey we take alone, a scary
path toward a darkness impossible to fathom. The emotional trauma
associated with that final walk is by itself enough to shrink the will
of anyone who faces it. Physical pain lays another heavy burden on the
I'm not a big advocate of drugs. I've seen
too many young people turn bleary-eyed sneaking joints as a way of
coping and I've seen them pay a heavy price for it. But I also see no
need to deprive anyone of a medicine that will ease one's final days.
This isn't a drug-free society. We sell
booze over a bar, painkillers over a counter and rivers of prescription
chemicals at pharmacies to alleviate just about every symptom
imaginable. Hypocrisy drapes like a shroud over those who pop pills and
damn medical marijuana as a cultural evil.
I doubt that Peter McWilliams is a drug
king, but that's not for me to determine. I do know that he's a prisoner
of feuding disciplines that have subjugated compassion for statutes and
left him dying in pain on a hilltop.
* * *