Gone, but not forgotten

I run this old editorial of mine every year on the anniversary of Peter McWilliams’ death, as a reminder of the folly that is the drug war. Also, to commemorate a funny, decent, hardworking man who was hounded to death by a government that would rather see patients die than grant them the relief of medical marijuana.

McWilliams, by the way, unwittingly gave this blog its name, thanks to his eye-opening pro-liberty screed Ain’t Nobody’s Business If You Do. The book is for sale here. It’s been eleven years since McWilliams met his death at the hands of drug warriors.

The Ad That Killed Its Maker

by Rogier van Bakel

When Peter McWilliams took out an ad, it killed him. Literally.

The ad, an open letter to the movie community, ran in Daily Variety in December 1997. “Where is Hollywood’s answer … to the ten million marijuana arrests since 1972?” Peter asked. “Where is the Gentleman’s Agreement or To Kill a Mockingbird or Platoon dramatizing the insane cruelty of the War on Drugs?” He also blasted Drug Enforcement Administration officials as “arrogant” and “selfrighteous.”

It wasn’t unfamiliar territory for Peter. In 1993, he’d published an unputdownable, thought-provoking tome called Ain’t Nobody’s Business If You Do — the Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in Our Free Country (updated in 1996, and available for free here, in electronic form). The book, which made it onto the New York Times bestseller list, documented U.S. politicians’ attempts to legislate what people may and may not see, read, and ingest. Peter launched a particularly formidable argument against drug prohibition.

In 1996, when AIDS and cancer entered his life, he became an advocate for medical marijuana, testifying before the National Academy of Sciences and giving numerous media interviews. “As a recent cancer, chemotherapy, and radiation survivor who uses medicinal marijuana to keep down the anti-AIDS drugs that are keeping me alive,” Peter wrote in the Variety ad, “I can personally attest to marijuana’s anti-nausea effect.”

Exactly seventeen days after the ad ran, the government responded the only way it knows how: with a full-scale raid. Eight DEA agents, guns drawn, stormed Peter’s house in Laurel Canyon, California, and confiscated his computer, his backup drives, and various research materials. Peter readily admitted to growing some marijuana for his own medical use, “in the time-honored tradition of Washington, Jefferson, and Timothy Leary.”

The feds had no arrest warrant at the time of the raid, but they finally came for him in July of 1998. The indictment against Peter made much of the fact that as the publisher of Prelude Press, his own publishing company where he employed eighteen people, Peter had given an advance to an author for a book on medical marijuana. That writer, a fellow medical-marijuana patient, used a portion of the money to grow his own medicine. The feds saw Prelude Press as the source of the funds the man had used to finance his little crop. So they treated Peter like a drug kingpin.

It’s an interesting piece of logic. If a Microsoft engineer uses some of his salary to visit a prostitute, should Bill Gates be arrested on federal pandering charges?

More importantly, did Peter really break the law? Depends on whom you ask. California explicitly allows the use of medical marijuana under Proposition 215, which voters passed into California constitutional law in 1996. The federal government, however, does not recognize a state’s right to adopt its own drug legislation. So what Peter did was perfectly legal in his own state; it just didn’t sit well with some drugfighting hard-liners three thousand miles away in Washington D.C., who decided to dispatch an assault team to an increasingly frail AIDS and cancer patient.

One of the conditions of Peter’s bail was a weekly urine test. Were he to test positive for illicit drugs, he’d return to jail, pending his trial. Besides, his mother (in her seventies) had put up her house as collateral for the bond. The feds could seize her home and evict her if Peter violated his bail terms. So Peter was forced to be sick as a dog on most days — much sicker than he would have been if he’d been allowed to smoke marijuana, a plant whose medical benefits are well-documented. Now frequently unable to hold down down his medication, Peter grew weaker and became wheelchair-bound.

Last month, when he was at home, taking a bath, the nausea overcame him once more. He choked to death on his own vomit. He was 50 years old. He died because the government wouldn’t let him have a toke. Viewed another way, he died because he had the temerity to run that ad.

The prosecutors commented they were “saddened” by Peter’s death.

No doubt, so are the smart, well-meaning creatives on Madison Avenue who make ad campaigns for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, propagating a War on Drugs that is making more casualties by the day.

[© Crain Communications and Rogier van Bakel, 2000. Originally published in Advertising Age’s Creativity.]


About Rogier:
Rogier is a Dutch-born, New-England-dwelling multi-media maven (OK, a writer and photographer) whose dead-tree publishing credits include the New York Times, Wired, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Reason.
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