October 23, 1999
US PROSECUTES CANCER PATIENT OVER MARIJUANA
By now, vomiting is second nature to Peter McWilliams. He has no shame
about it. Sometimes he even sees the humor in it.
McWilliams, 50, still laughs about the time he leaned over a trash can at a
political convention, lost his lunch in front of strangers, then casually
wiped his mouth with a cocktail napkin before continuing the conversation.
The other day, at his home high in the Hollywood Hills, he simply shrugged
when he returned from retching in the bathroom.
''You get used to vomiting,'' he said. ''You get used to anything, I
suppose. But it's insane that anyone has to go through this.''
McWilliams, who has AIDS and cancer that is in remission, said he and his
doctor know the solution to his suffering: medical marijuana. He said he
knows from experience that it helps him keep down the powerful drugs he
needs to survive and the food he needs to keep up his strength. Without it,
the book publisher and best-selling author fears he will die.
But for more than a year, McWilliams has been barred from smoking marijuana
while he awaits trial on a variety of marijuana-related charges. He says he
was growing it for his own consumption, and had not used it for more than
20 years until he became ill. Federal prosecutors charge that he was
conspiring to sell it along with his codefendants, all of them users of
Either way, McWilliams's situation underscores the ongoing conflict between
the state and federal governments over the use of marijuana by patients
with AIDS, cancer, or chronic pain - despite some medical studies and much
anecdotal evidence showing its palliative benefits.
California voters became the first to approve medical marijuana for
patients with a doctor's approval in November 1996 - the same year
McWilliams discovered a lump in his neck and learned he had non-Hodgkin's
lymphoma and AIDS. Washington followed last fall, and several states are
considering similar measures. But the federal government maintains that the
sale or distribution of marijuana remains illegal under all circumstances.
''The laws against medical marijuana are crazy in the first place,'' said
state Senator John Vasconcellos, a Democrat who has led the charge to
legalize medical marijuana and keep it legal in California. ''But to say
that people who are dying of cancer and AIDS can't relieve their pain is
awful. By denying Peter McWilliams the right to smoke marijuana while he's
out on [$250,000] bail, they're denying him life.''
McWilliams's trial is still a month away. For now, he is mostly confined to
his home, relying on friends to bring him the milk he gulps by the glassful
and the honey-roasted peanuts he eats by the fistful because they do not
make him nauseated.
Unable to work, McWilliams finds his Prelude Press bordering on bankruptcy.
Unable to walk even short distances, he uses a wheelchair for court
appearances. The other day, his face dripping sweat, he nodded off in the
hallway while inside the courtroom where his hearing was being postponed.
Of the first time he smoked marijuana after chemotherapy, McWilliams said,
''I had this epiphany: 'Oh my God, this stuff really works.' Then I got
mad, furious, thinking about all the millions of cancer patients who this
could be helping.''
Repeatedly turned down by a federal judge who says he cannot authorize
someone to break the law, McWilliams now hopes a federal appellate court,
which recently ruled that seriously ill people should be allowed to use
medical marijuana, will give him access to the only drug that he has found
to keep his nausea under control. Other defendants in federal marijuana
cases are expected to mount similar appeals based on the US 9th Circuit
Court of Appeals decision.
To federal prosecutors, however, McWilliams's case has nothing to do with
medical marijuana and everything to do with a drug ring, regardless of why
the defendants were growing the plants or who was using them. McWilliams is
accused of masterminding the plot, in part because of the $120,000 that
McWilliams says he paid codefendant Todd McCormick, a medical marijuana
patient and researcher, to write two books on the subject. If convicted,
they could face life in prison.
''We all admit to what we've done,'' said McWilliams, who previously bought
marijuana on the black market or at the cannabis clubs that had sprung up
around California after the passage of the law known as Proposition 215.
''We all grew marijuana; we all used marijuana,'' he continued. ''The 300
plants I had were my own personal stash ... Todd was studying which strains
work best for which types of illnesses. I mean all his plants were labeled.''
But federal prosecutors say that is no defense. In fact, they do not want
the defendants to be able to introduce a medical-necessity defense, discuss
the benefits of marijuana, or even mention Proposition 215 to jurors. Both
sides are scheduled to argue their positions next week before US District
Court Judge George King.
''The way that I characterize this case is that it involves a conspiracy to
conduct a commercial marijuana-growing operation involving more than 6,000
plants at four separate growing sites,'' said Thom Mrozek, spokesman for
the US Attorney's Office in Los Angeles, which is handling the case. ''It
doesn't matter where they were going to sell it. It doesn't matter if they
say, `I'm doing this to save my life.' It's illegal to manufacture or
cultivate marijuana under federal law.''
If prosecutors succeed in keeping those issues out of court, McWilliams's
attorney, Thomas Bollanco, said the defendants may as well head straight to
prison. Without medical necessity, they have no case.
''We're going to be left unable to answer to the charges because we can
only answer with what's true, and what's true is that these guys were
motivated by their medical needs and Prop 215,'' said Bollanco, who
recently lost a federal jury trial in Sacramento in which the judge refused
to allow a medical necessity defense.
Yet even on a state level, the answer to the medical marijuana debate
remains murky. Lacking clear-cut guidelines, law enforcement officials in
some jurisdictions actively pursue arrests, others tend to look the other
way. Last year, a task force including advocates and opponents worked to
craft a compromise. This year, the resulting bill was tabled. Faced with
federal opposition, California Governor Gray Davis has resisted giving it
But California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, unlike his predecessor,
appears to favor the voters' decision to allow the use of medical
marijuana, although he has called Prop 215 poorly written and open to too
much interpretation. This month, he urged US Attorney General Janet Reno to
let the appellate court ruling stand.
Possibly turned off by the number of marijuana plants involved - or by
McWilliams' admitted eccentricities - few have rallied around his case and
some have turned against him. He insisted he is hurt but not angry or
surprised by his isolation. After his arrest, McWilliams spent almost a
month in jail until he could raise the money to post bail.
''I am the representative of all the sick people and what they are doing to
me is only the worst case right now, but there will be others,'' McWilliams
said. ''I am living on borrowed time anyway. I owe this part of my life to
luck and modern medical science. But I can't imagine what the rest of it
will be like if they won't let me use medical marijuana.''