Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Martyred Life of Peter McWilliams

I did this piece on Peter McWilliams not long ago. He is by no means the only who has died because of needing and not being able to have access to cannabis based medications. He had cancer and couldn't keep his medicine down, and his life depended on the medications. As a last resort, his doctor prescribed marijuana for the nausea. It worked immediately, and it was the only thing that did, but the law hasn't caught up with medicine on this one, and even in California, he was forced to discontinue the treatment. He died shortly thereafter. Marijuana has long been regarded as among the best nausea treatments on the planet, but this is just one potentially life saving medical option that is not available to many of our people because everything related to marijuana is illegal. Change is being made, but we are not there yet.

The Martyred Life of Peter McWilliams
By Regina Garson

I think the real reason writers write is because deep down, they don’t have a choice. They know in their soul that there are stories that must be told. Some stories must not be allowed to rest in peace until there is peace to rest in. The story of Peter McWilliams is one such story for me.

I know I had to have heard of him before, I must have, somewhere in my consciousness. How many times have I talked about Magic Stream, my first website, now among the oldest and longest running self-help sites on the Internet. It has been such a part of me for so long, how did I miss the story of Peter McWilliams? 

Once I realized who he was, I looked around, and in arm’s reach was a well worn copy of You Can’t Afford the Luxury of a Negative Thought. That was just one of his books. I have picked it up many times over the years, but never put his name with the book.  

With nearly forty books to his credit, Peter McWilliams was a bestselling author and poet. Primarily known for his self-help books, that is only part of his story. It is very likely, you have heard of at least some of his books, could be you have one on your shelf and his name never hit you either. He used to joke that he was the bestselling writer that nobody had ever heard of. Somehow, everybody had heard of his books, but they didn’t tend to have a clue who he was.

The one I cherish, You Can’t Afford The Luxury of a Negative Thought is part of his Life 101 series. He also wrote about living with and healing from depression. He wrote a best-selling series of poetry books. Come Love with Me and Me My Life sold millions of copies. He also wrote about computers and marijuana, etc., etc. 

Peter McWilliams was very outspoken on issues he felt were important. Ain’t Nobody’s Business If You Do: The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in Our Free Country was also a best-seller. It came to be regarded as the Libertarian Bible.” He was a Libertarian spokesperson and the notion that if the crime hurts no one, the government should butt out. Among other, the book advocated for the legalization of marijuana.

His books touched countless lives in countless ways. Now all that’s left now is the spirit of this mortally wounded warrior and healer. Through no fault of his own, Peter McWilliams, became a martyr for the very things he believed in and worked so hard, a symbol of all that is wrong in a system gone horribly wrong.   Just a short time ago, if you had said his name to me, it probably would not have rang a bell. Even though I had one of his books in arm’s reach, I still did not know who he was. His jokes about everybody knowing his books but nobody knowing him, he nailed it. 

I was doing a story on some medical marijuana dispensary raids out in Seattle, started thinking about it, and probably for the first time, it started sinking in how serious this medical marijuana issue is. It is not that I didn’t know it was serious, I just didn’t know how serious. I certainly didn’t understand that it was life and death serious.  And I know, and everybody who knows me knows that I am quite liberal. And I considered myself significantly more educated than most on the subject. But I had still missed major chunks of information, and despite myself, I was still somewhat influenced by the hype.  By hype, I mean Reefer Madness hype and the propaganda mill spawned by the efforts of Henry J Anslinger and William Randolph Hearst, and later President Richard Nixon, when he declared the War on Drugs, for no other reason than it gave him a legal means to have people put away that he found problematic. I am not joking; 
Nixon really wanted a way to get rid of those hippies, who at the time were making a lot of noise protesting the Viet Nam War. He figured that since a lot of them smoked pot, the plan might just work. And with that foundation, and that most auspicious of US presidents, to this day, our nation continues the War on Drugs.

For thousands of years before all this, cannabis was a medicine, not a recreational drug, not a Schedule 1 Narcotic. For any number of ailments, cannabis is among the most effective treatments ever known to human kind. It is effective in the treatment of Crohn’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, glaucoma, cerebral palsy, eating disorders, severe nausea, including the nausea associated with cancer. Recent studies in Israel demonstrate it an effective treatment in some cancers. Yes, the knowledge of it as a potential cancer treatment has been around for a while. Wonder who forgot to mention that one? 

Other studies show a possible treatment for Alzheimers.  Despite the fact that the list goes on and on as to the studies and treatments, these treatments are not available to most patients in the United States. And in the US, instead of concentrating our studies on how to heal and cure, the studies have focused on the dangers of drug abuse, even when there was little or no drug abuse to be seen. And even when it is absolutely clear as to the numerous effective medical applications. There are very few side effects and there is not a single recorded case of death from overdose from marijuana in all of written history, in all of civilization, in all the world. I’d say somebody pulled a smooth one on us.   

Anyway, with increasing awareness, people know there have been serious misspeaks on the part of our governments when it comes to marijuana, its recreational use, but much more importantly, its medical use. For many ailments, throughout the history of civilization, it has been the treatment of choice. People are also starting to understand there is indeed a problem, in both the legality and classification of marijuana. State by state, the laws are being changed at an increasingly rapid pace. 

The problem is, those laws have not been changed at the Federal level. And that has left inconsistencies in how things are handled at the state and Federal level.  Although in no way an isolated case, the story of Peter McWilliams is perhaps one of the most gut wrenching of all time. In 1996, he was diagnosed with AIDS and non-Hodgkin's lympoma, cancer. 

This was the same year Proposition 215 passed in California. It allowed terminally ill patients access to marijuana. As to his own health, Peter was having a hard time keeping the cancer medications down; he suffered from severe nausea, as is true with many cancer patients.  When nothing else seemed to be working, on his doctor’s advice, he tried marijuana, and it eased the nausea so that he was able to keep his medications down. The treatment was successful and as you might expect with a long time self-help writer, when he realized it was indeed a very effective treatment, he became active in the medical marijuana self-help movement as well, talking about it, educating other patients, and teaching them how to grow it as well. 

He was growing his own medicine, for himself and others, which was legal and he was in compliance with all regulations under California law.  In 1997, he was arrested, by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and charged with growing marijuana. The story gets complicated, as things tend to when the Feds get involved, I won’t go into all the details, but they indeed spun a good case against him. 

There is no doubt he looked bad. He had hundreds of marijuana plants. However, since he was growing for others as well, many of those details would have looked very different had he been allowed to present his side of the story in court. As I mentioned, he was in compliance with his state regulations. Could be that is a big part of why these folks are not allowed to testify in their own behalf when these cases get to court. Without being allowed to present a defense, he indeed looked like a major drug lord kingpin. Along the process of the case, although he spent some time in jail, he was released on bail, and the condition that he not use any marijuana at all. He would have to submit to weekly drug tests. Since his elderly mother and brother put up their houses as bail, he was told that if he failed the test and was incarcerated, they would both lose their homes. 

If I understand the story correctly, they also gave his mother a follow-up phone call to make sure the whole family understood what would happen if he failed the drug test.  This was not a joke, in no way a -- what I really want to do is get high joy ride. Peter McWilliams died within days of discontinuing use of the cannabis medication. His cancer medications were making him nauseous to the point he was not able to keep them down. He had cancer and AIDS, he needed the marijuana medication, and his life depended on it. When the government took that away from him, he died choking on his own vomit.

Let me be specific, when they found him dead, he was on his bathroom floor, in a pool of vomit. And they argue the humanity of our death sentences. He did not die by hanging, or lethal injection, or by a firing squad, not by stoning, or by beheading, but when the court took his medicine away, Peter McWilliams was sentenced to death.   In a recent news story on DEA practices, which is another story, but really how I ended up on Peter McWilliams, they claimed that their various investigative techniques were used against "common criminals." It is clear, they defined this man, this kind and gentle, activist and healing spirit, as a criminal, a criminal so heinous he was not allowed his medicine, even if his life depended on that medicine. Is that how the rest of the world sees Peter McWilliams? I am not so sure.   

From my own writing, and although change is hopefully in the air, I am aware of the DEA’s aggressive persecution of sick and infirm patients using medical marijuana. This is even in states where what they are doing is completely legal and the medication is specifically prescribed by their doctors. I am also aware that by the time the DEA finishes building their cases against these seriously ill individuals, they frequently look like drug lord kingpins. And that is how they are presented and prosecuted in court. 

Somehow, the pictures of these drug lord kingpins in wheel chairs and on life support systems don’t tend to make it to the evening news. Peter McWilliams was in a wheelchair and going downhill fast when he made his last court appearance. Medical marijuana activists from across the country have long been calling foul on the DEA’s tactics regarding these patients, the growers, the dispensaries, and those who provide their care and medication. The raids have been conducted in state after state where the use of medical marijuana has been legalized. Despite numerous statements from our President that the Federal government would not interfere in changes in state medical marijuana laws, the DEA raids have not only continued, they have escalated. When you compound the matter that they are aggressively going after seriously ill and injured individuals, even the terminally ill, that puts the whole thing in a different light. Peter McWilliams did not survive their persecution. When the news stories flash and you hear how many of these dealers and thugs are taken off the street, it is easy to nod your head in agreement, it all seems so logical and good. We all know that the DEA goes after major drug kingpins. It sure puts things in a different light when you realize that Peter McWilliams was one of those alleged kingpins. When the DEA gets their hands on them, seriously ill and/or injured individuals find themselves in court, homes confiscated, financially ruined by the legal costs, not to mention their medication confiscated, and very likely not able to do much work at all because of their health. Then they are made out to be major drug kingpins and prosecuted and sentenced as such. There is more though. That is that when these seriously ill patients get to court, they are not allowed to mention their medical condition or that the plants they were growing or the amount they had in their possession was a prescribed medication, often for a terminally ill condition.  

Peter McWilliams was probably the most famous such case. He died just days after he was ordered not to take his cannabis medication. In the process, he too was made out to be a major drug lord kingpin. As with many others, what he was doing was completely legal under his California state law, Proposition 215. As with many others, his doctor had recommended the medical marijuana treatment. And the treatment was indeed effective.  

Under Federal guidelines, the fact that his marijuana use was a matter of life and death was not admissible in court. What he was doing as both a grower, and educating others on the use of marijuana as a medicine was legal in the state of California where he lived. He started and was using marijuana on the advice of his doctor. None of that was allowed in court. The fact that taking the cannabis medication was a matter of life and death was not admissible in court.

Because of his work and his writing, McWilliams was a very visible, but in no way isolated case. This scenario is playing out every day in this country. Nonetheless, a tremble was felt throughout the land when he passed. There was a rally in protest when he died. Even though his life depended on it, his side of the story, the reason for his marijuana use or the amount he had in his possession was not allowed in court. He was allowed no defense. None. Could be that is how the DEA defines common criminal, an individual for whom they remove all defense.
How can any civilized nation on this earth take away the medication of a terminally ill individual, the medication that is keeping them alive, and not only not allow them to speak up in their own behalf -- as they take their medicine away from them -- but then to not do a thing to change those laws after that person dies choking, on the floor, in their own vomit.

It was very clear at the time that everything to do with his case was a very big mistake. Change is brewing, and state after state are changing their laws, but we are not there yet. And the situation remains the same in states that haven’t changed the laws to allow the use of cannabis in the state. And still, even in the states where it is legal, when the Feds have come in and made Federal level arrests in what was state licensed medical marijuana cases, no matter the diagnosis, no matter the reason for treatment, no matter how many people are being helped, no matter that it is a state licensed facility, in compliance with every regulation on the book, when the case comes up in Federal court, no mention is allowed of the medical implications or background to the case.

A lot of people are hopeful that there will be changes with the recent announcement by Attorney General Eric Holder, but at the end of the day, it was just a memo, there was no change in the laws, not yet anyway.

No matter how you look at it though, Peter McWilliams was sentenced to death. To the Feds and the DEA, he was just a common criminal. There are countless others who do not agree. Just as surely as there is the declaration of war, any war, there is an enemy that must be destroyed. There are heroes, there are prisoners of war, and there are martyrs. And there are others who through no fault of their own are systematically destroyed by the enemy. Someone’s brother, sister, lover, friend, a loved one doesn’t make it. Whose war is it anyway? These are our people who are dying. To this day, there are many who consider the death of Peter McWilliams a murder for which the DEA should be charged. 

If you’ve never read his stuff, it’s worth a look. It is almost a guarantee that somewhere in the stack, you will find something that you enjoy. That touches your soul. Several of his books are available online, for free.

Peter McWilliams worked right up until the time he died. These last two are uncompleted, works in progress.
  • Joy is Good: Peter McWilliam’s work in progress about  Depression and “Joy Pills” aka St. John’s Wort. 
  • A Question of Compassion: An AIDS-Cancer Patient Explores Medical Marijuana. (It is as is, Peter McWilliams has passed.)
Also see:
Peter McWilliams loved quotes, and sprinkled them throughout his works. I’ll finish with this one. It fits. 
He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetuate it.    -- Martin Luther King, Jr. --    Copyright 2013 Regina Garson

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