The Los Angeles Times
U.S. to Fight Man's Plea
to Use Medicinal Marijuana
Writer facing federal charges says he needs the drug
to combat nausea from AIDS medication.
Prosecutors say the law leaves them no choice.
By: MICHAEL LUO
TIMES STAFF WRITER
Friday, February 26, 1999
No one disputes that Peter McWilliams is dying and that marijuana has helped buy
him valuable time. Even the prosecutors who will try him on federal drug charges
in September won't contest that in court.
But when McWilliams asks a judge today to alter his bail conditions so he can
smoke pot while awaiting trial, the prosecutors will be dead-set against it.
McWilliams, a 47-year-old Laurel Canyon resident who was diagnosed with AIDS
three years ago, says he needs pot to keep him from vomiting his powerful
Federal attorneys argue that the law leaves no room for sympathy. Despite
California voters' 1996 passage of Proposition 215, which legalized the medical
use of marijuana, the federal government still regards possession and ingestion
of marijuana as criminal acts.
"Our job is to enforce the law and not to legislate," said
Assistant U.S. Atty. Fernando Aenlle-Rocha. "There's no way we could do
anything other than oppose this."
A federal grand jury in July indicted McWilliams on nine counts of
conspiring to possess, manufacture and distribute marijuana. The charges came a
year after federal agents raided the Bel-Air mansion of McWilliams' alleged
partner, medical marijuana advocate Todd McCormick, and found more than 4,000
marijuana plants, worth several thousand dollars each.
McWilliams' plea to liberalize his bail restrictions sets the stage for a
confrontation in federal court today that will be watched closely by medical
marijuana advocates. Five states recently followed California's lead in
legalizing marijuana use for medical purposes.
McWilliams, a writer and publisher who faces a mandatory minimum of 10 years
in prison, insists that he is not a drug kingpin but simply someone interested
in conducting medical research on different strands of marijuana. Prosecutors
say that when they expanded their investigation of McCormick, they found that
McWilliams was financing the drug manufacturing and distribution operation.
A month after McWilliams was taken into federal custody, he was freed on
$250,000 bond. A federal magistrate, however, forbade him from smoking marijuana
as one of the conditions of his bail release.
The decree is tantamount to a death sentence, McWilliams and his doctor say.
"I just want to be alive to defend myself in September," he said.
McWilliams is on the "combination cocktail" of AIDS medications
that attacks the deadly virus in his blood but also causes violent fits of
nausea. Pot helps him keep the drugs down.
Since his release and subsequent denial of pot, McWilliams' viral load has
skyrocketed from undetectable to a level that, if it is not reduced, will
inevitably lead to the crumbling of his immune system, his doctor says.
Dr. Daniel Bowers, an AIDS specialist at Pacific Oaks Medical Center in
Beverly Hills, diagnosed McWilliams in March 1996. He initially prescribed a
number of other anti-nausea agents, including Marinol, a drug that includes a
synthetic form of THC, a medically active ingredient in marijuana.
The doctor said he finally recommended marijuana: "Everything else
Immediately, McWilliams' viral load went down to undetectable, where it
remained for nearly a year until his arrest.
Now, his doctor says, his life may be slipping away. Even so, prosecutors
say that the law is on their side because federal law is deemed supreme in any
conflict between state and federal statutes.
Legal experts agreed, saying that McWilliams and attorney Tom Ballanco, who
will argue that denying McWilliams access to pot constitutes an abridgment of
his fundamental right to life, probably will lose their appeal.
"California, in passing its medicinal use initiative, only affected
state law. It had no impact at all on federal law or federal prosecutions,"
said professor Clark Kelso of the McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento. "A
federal judge is not going to say I'm going to approve a violation of federal
Magistrate Andrew Wistrich, who presided over McWilliams' original bail
hearing in December, ruled that passage of Proposition 215 did not change
marijuana's federal status as an illegal drug.
Prosecutors' opposition to McWilliams' plea is the latest in a string of
federal assaults on Proposition 215.
Last year, federal prosecutors began closing cannabis buyers clubs in
Northern California by civil injunction. In addition, federal officials have
vowed to prosecute doctors who recommend marijuana to their patients.
McWilliams, despite his weakened state, has found the energy to launch a
vigorous political and legal campaign.