The DEA Wishes Me a Nice Day
By: Peter McWilliams
On December 17, 1997, I was working in my living room-office on my computer next to a fire -- sort of high-tech meets Abe Lincoln. It was not yet dawn, and I had been working most of the night. Leonard Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat" begins, "It's four in the morning, the end of December." It's a special time of night and a special time of year. The rest of the world has gone quite mad with Christmas, and I am left alone to get some work done.
A hard pounding on the door accompanied by shouts of "Police! Open Up!" broke the silence, broke my reverie, and nearly broke down the door. I opened the door wearing standard writer's attire, a bathrobe, and was immediately handcuffed. I was taken outside while Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents ran through my house, guns drawn, commando-style. They were looking, I suppose, for the notorious, well-armed, highly trained Medical Marijuana Militia. To the DEA, I am the Godfather of the Medicine Cartel. Finding nothing, they took me back into my home, informed me I was not under arrest, and ordered me -- still in handcuffs --to sit down. I was merely being "restrained," I was told, so the DEA could "enforce the search warrant."
However, no search warrant was immediately produced. Over time, one page after another of the warrant was placed on a table nearby. I was never told the reasons a federal judge thought it important enough to override the Fourth Amendment of the Supreme Law of the Land and issue search warrants for my Los Angeles home of eleven years, my new home (two doors away), and
the offices of my publishing company, Prelude Press, about a mile away. The reasons, I was told, were in an affidavit "under seal."
In other words, I have no way of determining whether this is a "reasonable" search and seizure. The DEA agents could have written the judge, "We've never seen the inside of a writer's house before and we'd like to have a look. Also, those New York federal judges are very touchy about letting us go into New York publishing houses, so can we also have a look at Prelude
Press here in L.A.?"
Whatever the reason, I was in handcuffs, and the nine DEA agents and at least one IRS Special Agent put on rubber gloves and systematically went through every piece of paper in my house. (Were the rubber gloves because I have AIDS, or are they just careful about leaving fingerprints?)
I should point out, as I promised them I would, that I was never "roughed up." The DEA agents were, at all times, polite, if not overtly friendly. During the three hours of their search, the DEA agents asked me tentative, curious questions about my books, as though we had just met at an
autographing party. They admired my artwork, as though they were guests I had invited into my home. They called me by my first name, although I am old enough to be the parent of any of them.
A DEA Special Agent (not just one of those worker-bee agents) made it a point to tell me that the DEA has a reputation for busting into people's homes, physically abusing them, and destroying property, all in the name of "reasonable search and seizure." This, he reminded me on more than one occasion, was not taking place during this search and seizure. I agreed, and
promised to report that fact faithfully. I have now done so.
I suppose the DEA considers this a step up, and I suppose I agree, but it was eerie to see bright (for the most part), friendly, young people systematically attempting to destroy my life. I do not use the word "destroy" lightly. DEA agents are trained to fight a war, the War on Drugs, and in that war I am the enemy -- a fact I readily admit. The DEA, therefore, fights me with the only tools it has -- going through my home, arresting me, putting me in jail for the rest of my life, asset-forfeiting
everything I own, selling it, and using the money to hire more DEA agents to fight the War on Drugs. From these young people's point of view, invading my home is an act of patriotism.
In a DEA agent's mind, because I have spoken out against the War on Drugs, I'm not just an enemy, but a traitor. In 1993, I published Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do: The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in Our Free Country.
In this libertarian tome -- endorsed by a diverse group including Milton Friedman, Hugh Downs, Archbishop Tutu, and Sting -- I explored in some detail the War on Drugs' unconstitutionality, racism, anti-free market basis, deception, wastefulness, destructiveness, and un-winability. I see it
as one of the darkest chapters in American history, and certainly the greatest evil in our country today.
My view is at odds, obviously, with the last line of DEA Administrator
Thomas Constantine's 1995 essay, "The Cruel Hoax of Legalization": "Legalizing drugs is not a viable answer or a rational policy; it is surrender." According to Administrator Constantine, I and "many proponents of drug legalization," are "wealthy members of the elite who live in the
suburbs and have never seen the damage that drugs and violence have wrought on poor communities, and for whom legalization is an abstract concept." An abstract concept. Like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Given my outspoken opposition to the Drug War, I shouldn't be surprised that the DEA wanted to search my home. The Drug War is another Viet Nam. Most of the drug warriors know it, and they have no intention of losing this war and becoming the homeless people so many Viet Nam veterans have tragically become. Smart drug warriors. So, to the DEA, I'm part of the nation's enemy. And I must admit, by DEA standards, I have been pretty bad.
But when I got sick, I got even worse.
In mid-March 1996 I was diagnosed with both AIDS and cancer. (Beware the
Ides of March, indeed.) I had not smoked marijuana or used any other illicit drug for decades prior to this (a decision I now regret). But since 1996 I owe my life to modern medical science and to one ancient herb.
And so I became an outspoken advocate of medical marijuana. In 1996, before
the passage of California Proposition 215 (the Medical Marijuana Act), I
donated office space to a cannabis club so it could sell marijuana to the
sick. I also started the Medical Marijuana Magazine on-line in February 1997; testified in favor of medical marijuana before the California Medical Examiners Board and the National Academy of Sciences; and appeared as a medical marijuana advocate in or on numerous media, including CNN, MSNBC, The Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, United Press International, CBS
Radio Network, and dozens more.
For a sick guy, I've been around. (Actually, I've been around, and that's how I got to be a sick guy, but that's another story.) Most disturbing to the DEA, I would guess, was my strong criticism of it in a two-page ad I placed in the December 1, 1997, Daily Variety. I denounced Administrator
Constantine's threat to criminally investigate the creators of Murphy Brown
for Murphy's fictional use of medical marijuana. Having made comments such
as, "The DEA gives the phrase 'ambulance chasing' a whole new meaning," I'm
surprised it took the DEA 17 days to find my house -- but, then, they are
part of the government.
About two weeks before my DEA Christmas visitation, the Medical Marijuana
Magazine on-line announced it would soon be posting portions of a book on
medical marijuana that I've been working on, A Question of Compassion: An
AIDS Cancer Patient Explores Medical Marijuana. My publishing company
announced that books would ship in January. This brings us back to my
computer and the DEA agents' almost immediate interest in it.
My computer and its backup drives, which the DEA also took, contained my
entire creative output -- most of it unpublished -- for the nearly two years
since my diagnosis. My central project has been the above-mentioned book and
a filmed documentary with the same title. Being a fair, balanced, objective
view of medical marijuana in the United States, the book is scathingly
critical of the DEA..
So they took the computer, backup copies of my computer files, and most of
my research materials on medical marijuana. William F. Buckley, Jr. said,
"That is the equivalent of entering The New York Times and walking away with
the printing machinery." If I don't get my computer and files back, it will
take at least six months additional work to get back to where I was, and
redoing creative work is disheartening at best.
Not only am I in shock from having been invaded and seeing my "children"
kidnapped (writers have an odd habit of becoming attached to their creative
output), but every time I go for something -- from a peanut butter cup to a
magazine -- it's not there. Something is there, but it's not what was there
24 hours earlier. Everything reeks of nine different fragrances -- like the
men's cologne department at Macy's. My address books were also taken -- not
copied, taken. As you can imagine, all this is most disorienting, especially
for a born-again marijuana addict like me.
How the DEA Works
A few random observations:
While rummaging through my publishing company, a DEA agent told the
publishing staff, "You guys had better start looking for new jobs. If the
DEA doesn't take this place for marijuana, the IRS will. The government will
own this place in six months." Such a statement does not just have a
chilling effect on a publishing company; it is like putting an iceberg in
front of the Titanic.
The DEA took a microcassette tape from the recorder next to my bed. On the
tape I had dictated a letter to President Clinton (dictating to President
Clinton in bed seemed appropriate), asking him to rise above politics and
show his compassion by making medical marijuana available to the sick. I may
never get to mail that letter now, but I certainly hope the DEA agent who
listens to it will transcribe it and send it to his or her boss's
(Constantine) boss's (Reno) boss (Clinton).
I have precisely three porn magazines in my house, hidden deep away in my
sock drawer. (Who has enough socks to fill a whole drawer?) The magazines
were removed from their stash and placed on top of random objects before
photographing them. A jury, looking at these photographs, would think I have
pornography all over the place. Frankly, I don't mind if a jury thinks this,
because my view of pornography agrees completely with that of Oscar Levant:
When the DEA agents found a collection of Playboys at the offices of
Prelude Press (the Playboy Forum is, in fact, one of the best
anti-prohibition information sources around), I am told (as I was not there)
that three of the male DEA agents spent a great deal of time
testosteronistically pawing through and making typically sexist comments
about portions of the magazine that have nothing to do with drugs -- but
that are obviously addictive nonetheless.
An invasion of nine people into the world of someone with a suppressed
immune system is risky at best. DEA agents come into contact with criminals
and other DEA agents from all sorts of international places with all sort of
diseases. Some of these diseases don't infect their young federal bodies,
but the agents pass them along. I think of certain strains of tuberculosis,
deadly to people with AIDS and rampant in certain quarters -- quarters where
I make it a point not to go, but quarters in which the DEA seems to thrive.
Since my diagnosis, I have lived the life of a near hermit, especially
during flu season, which is now. Thundering into my sterile home surrounded
by the clean air of Laurel Canyon is the equivalent of germ warfare. At
least two of the agents were sniffling or coughing. Six of them handled me
in some way. I kept flashing back to the U.S. Cavalry passing out
smallpox-infested blankets to shivering Native Americans. Have these people
no sense of the struggle AIDS people's bodies have in fighting even ordinary
illnesses, and the lengths some of us go to avoid unnecessary exposure to
infection? (Naïve American question, huh?)
Philosophically, or at least stoically, one could say all this is part of my
research into medical marijuana and those who oppose it -- especially into
those who oppose it. The problem is that I'm not sure what I've learned. Two
scenarios surface, each more frightening than the other.
Scenario One: The DEA, angered by my criticism and fearful of more, decided
to intimidate me -- and to have a free peek at my book in the bargain.
Scenario Two: In July 1997, the DEA invaded the home of Todd McCormick,
destroyed his marijuana research plants (one of which had been alive since
1976), took his computer (which had notes for a book he is writing), and has
not yet returned it. Perhaps the DEA -- caught in a blind, bureaucratic
feeding frenzy -- is just now, five months later, getting around to
investigating my connection as possible financier of Todd's "Medical
Marijuana Mansion" or even -- gasp! -- that I grew some marijuana for
myself. This means that in order to justify the arrest of Todd McCormick, a
magnificent blunder, they are now coming after me, a magnificent blubber.
Whichever scenario is correct, if the DEA and IRS have their way I may spend
the rest of my life in a federal prison, all expenses paid (and deaths from
AIDS-related illnesses can be very expensive, indeed). Truth be told, prison
doesn't particularly frighten me. All I plan to do the rest of my life is
create things -- write, mostly. I've been everywhere I want to go. It's my
time of life for didactic pontificating. It is a phase writers go through
immediately preceded by channel surfing and immediately followed by channel
surfing. Or hemlock.
If the DEA has seized my computer to silence me, it has failed, as I hope
this article illustrates. The DEA's next oppressive move, then, would be to
(Some have cautioned me about assassination, which I find difficult to
comprehend -- but then I thought my book was so safe I didn't even have a
backup in a Public Storage locker somewhere. I should, I suppose, state that
I am not in any way suicidal about this -- or anything else, for that
matter. So if I should die before the DEA wakes and they claim my death was
a suicide, don't you believe it. I plan to go about as quietly into that
good night as Timothy Leary did. Still, as a naïve American, this concern is
far from my mind.)
If the DEA intends to come after me as the financier of Todd McCormick's
medical marijuana empire, the DEA knows full well I took credit for that
immediately after Todd's arrest -- which made a lie of the DEA's claim that
Todd purchased his "mansion" with "drug money." Yes, I gave him enough money
to rent the ugliest house in Bel-Air and, yes, being Todd McCormick, he grew
marijuana there. The money I gave him was an advance for a book on
Todd cannot use medical marijuana as a condition of his bail-release. He is
drug-tested twice weekly. He cannot go to Amsterdam where he could legally
find relief from the pain of cancer. Todd now faces life imprisonment -- a
ten-year mandatory minimum -- and a $4 million fine, for cultivating medical
marijuana, which is specifically permitted under the California
Compassionate Use Act of 1996.
The DEA, at the federal level, and California Attorney General Dan Lungren
(with Governor Pete Wilson smiling his approval from on high) should have
opposed Proposition 215 in court. In court they had the right -- and the
responsibility, if they truly believed it a bad law -- to challenge the law
and ask a judge to stay its enactment. They did not. Instead, the DEA is
fighting its War on Drugs in the sickrooms of Todd, me, and countless
Our government is not well.
What our Patriots Are Doing Today
As I write this, I feel myself in mortal combat with a gnarly monster. Then
I remember the human faces of the kind people who tried to make me
comfortable with small talk as they went through my belongings as neatly as
they knew how.
It reminds me, painfully, that the War on Drugs is a war fought by decent
Americans against other decent Americans, and that these people rifling
through my belongings really are America's best -- bright young people
willing to die for their country in covert action. It takes a special kind
of person for that, and every Republic must have a generous number of them
in order to survive.
But instead of our best and our brightest being trained to hunt down
terrorist bombs or child abductors -- to mention but two useful examples --
our misguided government is using all that talent to harass and arrest
Blacks, Hispanics, the poor, and the sick -- the casualties in the War on
Drugs, the ones who, to quote Leonard Cohen again, "sank beneath your wisdom
like a stone." It is the heart of the evil of a prohibition law in a free
After all, picking on someone with AIDS and cancer is a little redundant,
don't you think?
On the way out, one of the DEA agents said, "Have a nice day."
I believe the comment was sincere.
The sidebar that was published along with this article in Liberty: Answering the Unanswerable Questions About Drugs