A Letter From the Editor: The Ad That Killer Its Maker

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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, perhaps unwisely, blasted Drug Enforcement Administration officials as "arrogant" and "selfrighteous."

It wasn't unfamiliar territory for Peter. In 1993, he'd published Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do: the Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in Our Free Country (updated in '96, and available for free in digital form at www.mcwilliams.com). The book documented - and ridiculed - U.S. bureaucrats' attempts to legislate what people can and cannot see, read and imbibe. 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 doing 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, Calif., confiscating 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 warrant for his arrest at the time of the raid, but they finally came for him in July 1998. The indictment against Peter stemmed in large part from the fact that as the founder and owner of Prelude Press, a publishing company where he employed eighteen people, he had paid an advance to an author for a book on medical marijuana. That writer, a fellow medical marijuana patient, used a portion of the advance to grow his own medicine. The Feds identified Peter as the "financier" of the man's small marijuana crop, and thus as a drug kingpin.

Did Peter really break the law? Depends on whom you ask. California explicitly allows the use of medical marijuana under Proposition 215, passed into California law in 1996. The Federal Government, however, does not recognize the 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. They thought it prudent and just to dispatch an eight-member DEA assault team to the home of 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 prison, pending his trial. Besides, his mother (in her 70s) 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. Frequently unable to hold down his medication, he grew weaker and became wheelchair-bound.

Last month, when he was at home, taking a bath, Peter was once more overcome by nausea. 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 that they were "saddened" by Peter's death.

No doubt, so are the smart, well-meaning creatives on Madison Avenue who lend their talents to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, propagating and perpetuating a War on Drugs that is making more unnecessary casualties by the day.

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