Pubdate: Sat, 23 Oct 1999

Source: Boston Globe (MA)

Front Page

October 23, 1999


By: Lynda Gorov

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

medical marijuana.

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

his approval.

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.''