Peter McWilliams is vomiting. He has AIDS and non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and when he throws up his lunch, he also regurgitates the pills he needs to stay alive. Smoking marijuana can suppress his nausea, and California's Proposition 215 says that's legal, but federal courts, contesting the proposition's power to override federal law, have denied him the right to use the herb. As a result, McWilliams has lost 30 pounds and his viral load has risen to a life-threatening level.
The feds seem ghoulishly eager to make an example of McWilliams, who's a contesting activist. Early in 1998, as head of Prelude Press, he commissioned fellow cancer victim Todd McCormick to write a book about what strains of cannabis are effective for which diseases. In the course of his research McCormick grew 4,000 marijuana plants. By that July, DEA agents had arrested both men, charging them with conspiracy to cultivate and distribute.
Although 4,000 plants sounds excessive, the federal government is allowing one corporate lab to grow five times as many, and McWilliams thought he had a case. In fact he welcomed a trial as a test of Proposition 215, even at risk to his own health. He wrote to me from jail: "The government has constructed what they believe to be a gallows, but I plan to turn it into a platform. I mean, they've taken the poster boy for medical marijuana and put him in jail without his medication."
But in early November, 1999, Federal Judge George King silenced McWilliams and McCormick by refusing to let them mention their medicinal needs, Proposition 215 or their just-published book, "How to Grow Medical Marijuana" in court. Prohibited from defending themselves as cancer patients and medical researchers acting legally under state law, McWilliams and McCormick faced mandatory 10-year sentences as drug felons. Because they could present the mitigating facts of their medical condition and receive reduced sentences only by pleading guilty, they had little choice but to do so.
If he lives that long, McWilliams, sitting in a wheelchair, will be sentenced at a hearing in late February, 2000. The diseased condition of American justice, however, has already been entered into evidence.