POZ Magazine

Drag King: Peter McWilliams is a writer blocked

by David Kirby

June 1999

POZ is a magazine for people who are HIV positive, their friends and family. POZ has a double meaning: HIV positive and keeping a positive attitude about it.

"Drag King" refers to either (a) taking a drag on a joint, or (b) what a drag it is that the federal government is killing me. I am not the proprietor of La Cage au Faux.



The federal government has handed down a sentence bestselling author Peter
McWilliams would never write: Smoke pot to help save your life and you'll
spend what's left of it in prison, with your mother and brother bereft of
their homes. For McWilliams, a cancer survivor whose viral load spirals as
nausea prevents him from keeping his HIV meds down, the government's stance
seems particularly cruel and unusual.

"The federal government is putting me through life-and-death hell,"
McWilliams says. A Los Angeles resident, he awaits trial in federal court on
eight felony counts including conspiracy to manufacture and distribute

"Only by smoking marijuana can I tolerate these medications," says the
author, currently on a regimen of 3TC, D4T and Sustiva -- when he can hold
them down. But as a condition of his bail, he is prohibited from smoking
grass and is subject to urinalysis without warning. One positive test for
marijuana use and McWilliams will forfeit his bail -- including the houses
of his mother and brother -- and return to jail.

The court allows McWilliams to take Marinol, the synthetic pot substitute
designed to boost appetite and help fight nausea, because drug tests are now
sophisticated enough to distinguish between the legal med and nature's own
outlaw weed. "But it is not nearly as effective," he says. "I can only keep
my medications down for about 30 percent as long with Marinol as when I
smoke marijuana."

But a motion filed by his lawyer to modify his condition of bail to allow
him to smoke pot was rejected by a federal magistrate in February and then
again in March.

McWilliams says his viral load went from a baseline of 12,500 copies three
years ago to 256,000 at last count, with his CD4 cells hovering below 400.
Viral resistance to some of his medications has set in, he claims, because
he hasn't been able to take them properly. [COMMENT FROM PETER: For more
than two years before my arrest when I used medical marijuana, my viral load
was "undetectable." The 12,500 was when I was first diagnosed, before any

Life wasn't always such a drag for the 49-year-old writer and owner of
Prelude Press publishing company, whose best-selling self-help tomes have
included Life 101 and Do It! Let's Get Off Our Buts!
(www.mcwilliams.com/books) Then in March 1996 he was diagnosed with lymphoma
and AIDS on the very same day.

"They started me on massive doses of radiation and chemotherapy," he
recalls. "And shortly after that, they began the triple-combination HIV
drugs. I was so sick from it all that I thought the medication would kill me
before the disease ever did."

That's when he started researching the purported benefits of medical
marijuana and found that huffing a hooter brought deliverance from the toxic
soup simmering in his weakened system.

After working for the November 1996 approval by voters of California's
Proposition 215, providing for legal medical pot, McWilliams met Todd
McCormick, another cancer survivor and medical marijuana advocate.
McWilliams gave him a contract to write a book on the subject
(www.growmedicine.com), and began to dole out the $150,000 advance, a
portion of which he admits to paying so that McCormick could grow pot. The
sum was given in small amounts, often on his personal credit card. "I'm an
unorthodox publisher," he says.

And McCormick's an unorthodox researcher. He used some of the money to rent
a $6,000-a-month house in swank Bel Air and cultivated thousands of pot
plants. In July 1997, 50 cops from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office
and the Drug Enforcement Agency raided McCormick's home and denounced him on
TV as a drug kingpin.

"I immediately responded with a press release saying Todd didn't get his
money from drug sales, but from me," McWilliams says.

And so, in December, drug agents "paid me a little visit," he says. Though
only a few ounces of pot were found, eight felony counts were filed.
McWilliams was arrested and spent a month in jail while his mother and
brother put their houses up to make his $250,000 bond.

While awaiting trial, McWilliams has become a cause célèbre. In March even
the National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine issued a report on
the possible usage of marijuana in the treatment of PWAs.