Fighting for life in California
Three major medical marijuana cases occurring in state and federal courts in California will determine if the government can kill people ? publicly and with deliberation ? as long as the people are terminally-ill authors, publishers or activists who use, grow and advocate medical marijuana.
This startling revelation is readily apparent to observers studying the government's options in the cases of Steve Kubby (see CC#18, Candidate Kubby), Todd McCormick, and Peter McWilliams.
Kubby and McWilliams are Libertarian author-publishers who use cyberspace and the written word to condemn the war on marijuana. Both are successful entrepreneurs, charismatic leaders, and unabashed defenders of personal freedom. McCormick is a popular 28-year-old Southern California marijuana activist who suffers from a variety of illnesses.
In January, 52-year-old Kubby and his wife Michele were arrested on various drug charges, and are currently being tried in a California state court.
McWilliams, a 49- year-old Southern California AIDS victim who, like Kubby, is also afflicted by cancer, was indicted last year by the federal government. Along with McCormick and several co-defendants, McWilliams is accused of masterminding a plan to grow and sell thousands of marijuana plants. If convicted, mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines may ensure that McWilliams dies in prison.
Underlying the public spectacles surrounding these show trials ? Kubby's will be held in Northern California's rural Placer County and McWilliams-McCormick in Southern California federal courtrooms ? is a fundamental question: can judges sentence terminally ill patients to prison for marijuana-related offenses, even though such sentences are likely to kill them?
From writer to fighter
There are other questions, such as: how did a creative guy like McWilliams, who started his career writing poetry books, become an indicted co-conspirator facing a de facto death sentence?
McWilliams has been a prolific writer since he began authoring books in 1967. His award-winning series of personal growth books include best-selling titles like How to Survive the Loss of a Love and You Can't Afford the Luxury of a Negative Thought.
He's written books about mental health, including How to Heal Depression and Hypericum [St John's Wort] and Depression. He even began marketing a trademarked brand of St John's Wort happy pills, and started an on-line discussion group for people seeking to overcome depression.
Most of his titles are disseminated via his very own publishing company, Prelude Press, and are also available free in special on-line versions at McWilliams' website.
Known for his rapier wit and intelligence, McWilliams has been on America's biggest radio and television talk shows, including The Oprah Winfrey Show, Larry King, and Phil Donahue.
His writing combines exhaustive research with humor and uncommonly prescient insight. Whether he's explaining unhappiness or the unconstitutionality of the drug war, he's always understandable and fun to read, peppering facts with pithy comments, analogies, and searing critiques.
McWilliams admits that his transformation from a self-help guru into a marijuana advocate took him by surprise.
"The vast majority of my life has been spent completely drug free," he reports. "I personally consider caffeine too harmful for my taste. My entire drug experimentation amounts to two years in the late sixties (from Sgt Pepper until John married Yoko), six months in the mid-seventies (something to do with disco) and a period starting in mid-March, 1996 when I was diagnosed with both AIDS and cancer on the same day."
Suffering from two deadly ailments, McWilliams tried chemotherapy, radiation, and the so-called AIDS cocktail, all of which caused debilitating side-effects. He realized that he knew of a drug that could help him endure his therapies ? marijuana. During research for his wildly entertaining and staunchly libertarian book Ain't Nobody's Business if You Do, McWilliams had discovered that cannabis was lauded as a cure for the nausea that often accompanied treatment for cancer and AIDS.
"I thought medical marijuana was a clever way to sidestep an unjust and unworkable prohibition, the same as medicinal alcohol had been used during alcohol prohibition in the 1920s," he recalls. "So I was shocked at my first inhalation of marijuana to find it ended my nausea in seconds. Not only did the nausea go away, but another feeling replaced it, a feeling I had not known since starting therapy: hunger. Thanks to medical marijuana, many an emergency run to the bathroom became a meandering raid on the kitchen!"
Like Steve Kubby, McWilliams found marijuana to be a restorative medicine. He belatedly joined the 1996 campaign for California's medical pot law, Proposition 215. In the months prior to 215's passage, he allowed the Los Angeles Cannabis Buyers' Club (now called the Cannabis Resource Center) to distribute medical marijuana from Prelude Press' offices in West Hollywood.
Los Angeles Sheriff's deputies raided Prelude Press in September, 1996, but McWilliams launched media-savvy protests that helped ensure dismissal of all charges stemming from the raid.
McWilliams meets McCormick
Perhaps feeling that his illnesses and public relations acumen made him immune from prosecution, McWilliams hooked up with Todd McCormick, a medical marijuana activist and cancer survivor whose pro-cannabis antics in the United States have become legendary.
McCormick has endured a lifetime of bone cancer, spinal degeneration and other ailments, and was first given medical marijuana by his mother at age nine.
"Other kids on his cancer ward were dying of malnutrition brought on by nausea," McWilliams says, "but Todd retained a healthy appetite. His mother couldn't tell the other mothers in the children's cancer ward how she was helping her son: if word got out that she was giving marijuana to a nine-year-old, they would have taken Todd from her."
McCormick's life was dedicated to what he believed gave him life: marijuana. He spent a year in Amsterdam, during which time he was given an international prescription for cannabis. Impressed by the younger man's enthusiasm and daring, and perhaps seeing in him a reflection of himself, McWilliams commissioned McCormick to write a book, How to Grow Medical Marijuana, for publication by Prelude Press.
In 1997, McWilliams started publishing the Medical Marijuana Magazine Online. He also founded a new publishing company, Medical Marijuana Press, that began distributing McCormick's book, and a McWilliams book titled A Question of Compassion: An AIDS-Cancer Patient Explores Medical Marijuana.
By then, however, the government had already taken notice of the maverick publisher and his fledgling author, targeting them for a federal investigation that may lead to the death of both men.
The marijuana mansion
If you examine the 37-page federal indictment that outlines the government's case against the two marijuana activists and their associates, you immediately recognize that the government's description of McWilliams and McCormick as professional drug producers and dealers is totally inaccurate ? the pair were not professional at all.
As the lengthy, detailed indictment makes painfully clear, their unprofessionalism bordered on exhibitionism. These guys apparently didn't believe there was anything wrong with growing lots of marijuana.
On July 29, 1997, McCormick's rented 10-room Southern California residence in swanky Bel Air was raided by at least 60 sheriffs and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents.
Authorities and the press dubbed McCormick's home "The Marijuana Mansion", reporting that more than 4,000 marijuana plants were growing in every nook and cranny, as well as outside the home.
Raiders cut down all the marijuana plants, and also seized cannabis seeds, stereo equipment, televisions and personal belongings.
McCormick was described by prosecutors as a major drug trafficker and subjected to various indignities by federal authorities, who refused to allow him to use medical marijuana or its synthetic derivative Marinol while he was in jail or out on bail.
After actor Woody Harrelson put up half a million dollars to secure McCormick's release, authorities threatened to revoke bail and confiscate Harrelson's money if McCormick's urine tests showed he had used marijuana.
In April, 1998, after McCormick had been subjected to hundreds of urine tests, prosecutors demanded that he be jailed and Harrelson's money forfeited because McCormick tested positive for THC.
McCormick's lawyers explained that McCormick was using Marinol, the synthetic marijuana derivative that caused THC to appear in urine tests. But McCormick was jailed due to a delay caused by prosecutors who forgot to provide expert testimony about the test results. Even though the hearing's inconclusiveness was due entirely to prosecutorial incompetence, McCormick was remanded to custody. He spent three weeks suffering in jail, but was finally released after hundreds of protesters, including his mother, rallied on the steps of the federal courthouse in Los Angeles.
McCormick has attempted to use Proposition 215 as an explanation for his whole-house grow room, saying he was cultivating thousands of varieties of marijuana in an effort to develop a vast array of medical strains, but his assertion has been greeted with skepticism by the government, the media, and many in California's medical marijuana community. Even if California authorities had recognized McCormick's mega-cultivation as a medical grow, the feds maintain that Proposition 215 is trumped by federal law, which classifies marijuana as a Schedule I illegal substance, along with heroin.
After McCormick's arrest, McWilliams issued a statement disputing government suspicions that he and McCormick were commercial pot growers. He said that money he'd given McCormick was a book advance, and accused the government of cruelty and theft, saying that the government was wrong to have confiscated McCormick's marijuana research plants ? one of which had been alive since 1976.
According to McWilliams, government agents and prosecutors reacted to these protestations by revving up an extensive investigation of his marijuana-related activities and his ties to McCormick.
McWilliams says the investigation included an incident in which DEA agents kidnapped his green, leased 1997 LX450 Lexus sport utility vehicle, towed it to the Lexus dealership, had a tracking device installed, and then returned it to McWilliams' property. This device failed to work, McWilliams says, so the DEA and the Lexus dealership repeated the whole charade again.
After tracking the car for several months, the DEA confiscated it overnight. This triggered a little-known lease clause that says if a federal agency confiscates a car, the lease is revoked and the full amount is due.
"Naturally, I didn't have the $50,000 Lexus demanded, so my credit went South, along with my car," recalls McWilliams.
Raid & arrest
McWilliams knew the government was after him, but that didn't stop him from placing a pro-marijuana ad in the December, 1997 issue of entertainment industry magazine Variety. In the advertisement, McWilliams made fun of DEA administrator Thomas Constantine for publicly condemning a fictional medical marijuana-using character in the popular American television series Murphy Brown.
McWilliams speculates that the ad was the bud that broke the camel's back, prompting a December 17, 1997 pre-dawn raid on his home by ten Internal Revenue Service and DEA agents.
Dressed only in a bathrobe, McWilliams was forcibly removed from his home while agents sprinted around inside, guns drawn, looking for terrorists or dangerous plants. Finding none, they carried the frail author-publisher back into his house, told him he was not under arrest but was being detained until a search warrant could be executed, and proceeded to spend three hours examining every square inch of his home and belongings.
"They even wore rubber gloves," McWilliams recalls.
The search took on a surreal aspect, as McWilliams noted how the agents politely shredded every gram of his privacy.
"One agent made it a point to tell me that the DEA has a reputation for busting into peoples 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 suppose the DEA considers polite invasion a step up, but there was an eerie, perhaps more frightening aspect about having bright (for the most part) friendly, young people systematically attempting to destroy my life," he wrote, "by 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."
The DEA didn't arrest McWilliams, but agents did take his computers, medicine, papers, unpublished books and personal materials.
McWilliams immediately began publicly protesting McCormick's arrest and the ongoing grand jury investigation into his and McCormick's activities, and gave a defiant speech to the Libertarian National Convention on July 4, 1998.
On July 23, the feds arrested McWilliams. He was held on $250,000 bond. Unable to post bail, McWilliams languished in jail for a month. During his first two weeks in jail, he was denied AIDS medication. After his mother and brother pledged their homes as bail collateral, he was released under draconian conditions that included prohibitions against using marijuana, enforced by random urine testing. If McWilliams used his medicine to quell the nausea caused by his AIDS medication, the court threatened, his relatives homes would be forfeited and he would be remanded into custody.
By October, McWilliams' AIDS syndrome had dramatically worsened. He was losing weight fast and doctors feared he would die. His attorney, Tom Ballanco, filed emergency petitions with the federal court, but in early March, 1999, Judge George King ruled that McWilliams could not use medical marijuana while awaiting trial, which is scheduled to begin in September.
The judge acknowledged that his ruling was certain to endanger McWilliams' health, and expressed hope and trust that the defendant and his physician will be able to determine a suitable treatment program within the law.
McWilliams viewed the ruling with disgust. "They're just going to let me die," he said.
Questions of intent
The government's indictment against McWilliams and McCormick portrays the two men and their co-conspirators as a massive marijuana conspiracy. The government alleges that from December, 1996 to December, 1997, McWilliams used Prelude Press as a front to finance creation of numerous marijuana cultivation sites, some of which were in buildings owned or rented by McWilliams.
"The publisher provided McCormick and other co-defendants with large sums of money and credit cards," the government alleges, "and co-defendants used McWilliams' largess to purchase or procure grow sites, pots, soil, vermiculite, fans, lights, hash sifters, ladybugs, electrical equipment, an automobile, moisture meters, light movers, building materials and other items."
These expenditures helped fashion sophisticated Southern California grow rooms, the indictment alleges, some with thousands of plants, specially-designed electrical systems, professional cloners.
The circumstantial and direct evidence cited by the government, based on a damning paper trail, grand jury testimony, surveillance records, incriminating letters written by co-defendants to McCormick, and other data, appears to leave McWilliams and his associates with few of the traditional avenues for defending themselves against charges that they conspired to and engaged in the manufacturing of marijuana for sale.
According to McWilliams' attorney Tom Ballanco, an associate of actor Woody Harrelson who has successfully handled several high-profile civil liberties cases, McWilliams unintentionally made it easy for the government to gather evidence against him because he believed he was doing nothing wrong.
"You have to understand the context of Peter's mindset and actions," Ballanco argues. "If you read his political writings, you'll see that, unlike many government officials, he really believes in the US constitution. He believes people have the right to medicate themselves and to make laws. He believes Prop 215 is law. He also believes, based on scientific evidence and personal experience, that marijuana is a fantastic medicine, and people have a right grow it, use it and have it provided to them."
McWilliams saw it as his moral obligation to provide medical marijuana to pharmacies and clubs under Prop 215, Ballanco says, so he formed a non-profit Medical-Botanical Corporation in late 1996 through which he could distribute different breeds of medically-useful clones.
"He believed he was operating within the law, which stated that a safe and reliable supply of medical marijuana should be provided to patients," Ballanco argues.
Does that mean that McWilliams acknowledges spending Prelude Press money to finance grow rooms?
"Not really," Ballanco says diplomatically. "He may have provided salaries and book advances to individuals working for Prelude Press, but this does not establish a quid pro quo or a conspiracy to violate federal law. The government construes innocent events as proof of a conspiracy."
When I told Ballanco that some people viewed McWilliams' actions as undeniably criminal, he responded that if the government's indictment proves anything, it proves that these people did not believe they were doing anything wrong and they did not act like criminals.
"They made no attempt to conceal what they were doing," Ballanco says. "Everything was purchased through normal retail channels. There's no element of clandestine behavior. If Peter had thought he was doing something against the law, he would have acted like it. Instead, he did everything in plain view. Todd made no secret that he was growing medical marijuana. The government hasn't done any forfeiture proceedings against Peter. That alone shows you that they know he didn't profit from marijuana sales. They'd have taken everything if they thought so."
Not afraid of death
According to Ballanco and other friends of McWilliams, the beleaguered author spends 20 to 22 hours a day in bed, trying to conserve strength.
"The government's refusal to allow him to use medical marijuana has debilitated him to the point where he can't even assist me in preparing his defense," Ballanco complains.
"He has to take as many as a dozen Marinol tablets per day, and still is only able to keep down one in four doses of his AIDS medicine," explains Ballanco. "It's not likely that he'll die before he goes to trial, but he is gravely ill."
McWilliams writes that if the DEA and IRS have their way "I may spend the rest of my life in federal prison, all expenses paid, and deaths from AIDS-related illnesses can be very expensive indeed."
He half-jokes about a DEA assassination plot, telling supporters that he is not suicidal, and warning that if he suddenly dies and the DEA claims that his death was a suicide, "don't you believe it."
Yet McWilliams continues as a feisty and determined advocate for medical pot. He wrote a letter to California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, demanding that Lockyer stand up to the feds and implement 215. He is also organizing a medical pot conference, replete with some of the biggest names in the med-pot movement, that might be held in July in Southern California.
Ballanco puts on as brave a face as possible, saying that he will use the newly-released Institute of Medicine medical marijuana report to push for reconsideration of the judge's decision preventing McWilliams from using marijuana.
"If I was Peter," Ballanco quips, "I'd just call their bluff. I know that his family's houses are on the line ? he's living in his brother's house ? but I'd just go to the courthouse every day for a month and smoke a big fat joint, and get healthier and healthier for the cameras, and see if they dared to put him in jail."
Ballanco is careful not to directly criticize Judge King's decision against medical marijuana, but says that a law professor once told him that any judge who cannot look beyond the letter of the law to see where justice resides is not worthy of his judgeship.
"We're placing our hope in the jury," Ballanco says. "I don't think the government is willing to accept any pleas, and Peter isn't inclined to ask their forgiveness. We believe that the jury will vote to respect the law we passed here in California, and will look at Peter's heart and his actions in light of who he is and has always been, an idealistic genius who has tried to bring good to this world."
TRINITY of martyrs
The trials of Kubby, McWilliams and McCormick are ripe with common themes and symbolism.
These men seem willing to die for their beliefs, for a plant. They all have a lot to lose: Kubby will leave behind a young wife and baby.
"One thing that is happening now, is that the battle lines are being drawn," Ballanco says. "We are finding out who our friends are, who we can count on. When things get tough a lot of people cut and run. In many ways, Peter has been left all alone. It is almost impossible for him to explain to people how this feels. He is very lonely. We hoped for more allies than we have. People are scared to stand up and fight."
"Some of the government's information almost certainly came from insiders or other marijuana industrialists," Ballanco acknowledges. Scott Imler, the controversial director of the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center, may have provided damaging information to the government, Ballanco says.
"It's obvious that associates of Peter or Todd may have helped the government in this case," Ballanco says carefully. "A lot of people are very angry about that. Peter and I don't characterize anybody as a traitor or a snitch. Everybody has their own heart and soul and beliefs, and they have to decide what to do if the government comes to ask them questions. Instead of us pointing fingers at each other and asking who betrayed whom, I think we should focus instead on prohibition and the government. They create these conditions under which friendships are destroyed and innocent associations are labeled criminal."
Beyond concerns about the marijuana movement's ability to unite as a team to fight the drug war, are concerns about what it means that media, police, prosecutors and government policymakers seem willing to allow men to be killed over marijuana crimes.
Past and present members of Congress, including Republican Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert and Republican Senator Dan Burton, have enacted laws that would mandate the death penalty for large-scale marijuana cultivators and smugglers. The Omnibus Crime Bill of 1996 also mandates the death penalty for large-scale marijuana cultivators and smugglers. The laws proposed by Gingrich called for the death penalty for anyone bringing in more than 50 times a single dose of any illegal drug. (For marijuana, the single dose of which is one half gram, the death penalty dose would be one ounce.)
This is more than just abstract paranoia. If sentenced to the terms mandated by law for the marijuana crimes they are accused of, the McWilliams-McCormick-Kubby trinity could be nailed to the cross of marijuana prohibition, where they will hang bloodied and martyred for all to see.
? Peter McWilliams can be reached at email@example.com. His website is at: www.mcwilliams.com
? How to Grow Medical Marijuana is online at: www.growmedicine.com.
? McWilliams' trial updates are at: www.petertrial.com.
? The Medical MarijuanaMagazine Online is at: www.marijuanamagazine.com.