Peter McWilliams Still Inspires Activists: Today Would Have Been His 65th Birthday
By Steve Elliott
The cannabis movement has plenty of heroes, but none are more inspiring than the great Peter McWilliams -- a man of fame and influence who dared tell the truth about medical marijuana, before it was fashionable to do so. McWilliams paid the ultimate price, dying after the federal government forbade him to continue using cannabis to control his nausea. He would have been 65 years old today.
McWilliams was many things: author, publisher, photographer, poet and activist, among others. But one of the most important things McWilliams was, was an inspiration. His courage and charisma were and continue to be a source of strength to many who are struggling with illness and with the injustice of our marijuana laws.
He had a remarkable career starting in the 1970s, writing more than 40 books, including works on depression, losing a loved one, computers, and poetry. Several of Peter's books made The New York Times Top 10 nonfiction bestseller list.
Peter's 1993 book Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do remains one of the greatest affirmations of the right of citizens to act and live in any peaceful, honest lifestyle, including their inalienable right to drugs and especially cannabis. It is regarded by many as a "libertarian Bible," with its emphasis on personal freedom and responsibility.
In 1995, Peter was diagnosed with depression, after having suffered from it all his life. Along with coauthor Harold H. Bloomfield, M.D. -- who treated Peter for his depression -- he'd authored How To Heal Depression the previous year.
In 1996 McWilliams was diagnosed with both AIDS and cancer and became very ill; he found that medical marijuana helped control the nausea and keep his medications down.
McWilliams became a cannabis legalization activist after contracting AIDS. In 1997, in what would be his final project, Peter and Todd McCormick started a medical marijuana garden in Bel Air, California, and were researching a book about medicinal cannabis. Both Todd and Peter agreed that, according to their understanding of the newly passed Proposition 215 -- approved by California voters in 1996 -- their right to do so was legally protected.
Federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents raided the Bel Air garden, and both McWilliams and McCormick were arrested and later sentenced to mandatory minimum five-year federal prison sentences in 1999.
By this time Peter had a very personal stake in legal medical marijuana, as he was using cannabis to treat the nausea and debilitating effects of the anti-AIDS pharmaceuticals he was taking to deal with HIV symptoms and cancer. McWilliams had intended to write about the effectiveness of cannabis in helping him deal with his illness.
At his federal trial, Peter was forbidden to even mention that his use of marijuana was for medical purposes, because federal law doesn't recognize any such use for cannabis.
The federal judge who sentenced McWilliams forbade him to use marijuana, and just five days after he was prohibited from using medicinal cannabis, Peter was found dead, choked on his own vomit from the nausea he suffered, on June 14, 2000.
Without marijuana, he had been unable to control the severe nausea associated with his medical conditions.
The official cause of death was a heart attack, but many believe that Peter died of a broken heart, betrayed by an America that had turned its back on compassion and medical science. McWilliams sincerely believed that medicinal cannabis had been legalized by a vote of the people of California.
His senseless death -- one of thousands due to the federal government's war on marijuana -- remains one of the most horrifying examples of the heartlessness of federal marijuana policy. Famed conservative political commentator William F. Buckley—despite their political differences, a friend—wrote just after Peter’s death, “Imagine such a spirit ending its life at 50, just because they wouldn’t let him have a toke.”
Continuing the Legacy: Peter McWilliams Remembrance
McWilliams' legacy continues with a new generation of activists whom he has inspired. One of the most prominent of those is Julia (she prefers to go by her first name only), curator of the online Peter McWilliams Museum. Julia has established the "Peter McWilliams Remembrance" page on Facebook and she maintains PeterMcWilliams.org and McWilliams.com, which was once Peter's own personal site.
Julia is helping to keep Peter's words, memory and legacy alive through online activism, videos and personal appearances at such events as Portland Hempstalk and Seattle Hempfest. At Hempfest's 2011 and 2012 editions, and at Hempstalk in 2012 and 2013, she brought an inspiring message about Peter's life and work for an entranced crowd.
Julia will once again be appearing at Portland Hempstalk this September 27 and 28, at Tom McCall Waterfront Park.
"I discovered Peter McWilliams in 2009 after reading his book You Can't Afford The Luxury Of A Negative Thought," Julia told Hemp News. "I was very inspired and wanted to do something about it.
"I started Peter's Page on MySpace and then the Facebook page," Julia said. "In 2011, I created a video which shows Peter's life and works." (Editor's note: See video below.)
"His words always tried to help people," Julia said. "He wrote books that helped disabled people learn computers. He cowrote How To Survive The Loss Of A Love, which helps people to this day heal their broken hearts and lives."
"Peter did so much with his short life," Julia told me. "It's only fair we remember him."
"Why am I here on this stage today, talking about some guy who died 13 years ago?" Julia asked the crowd at Olympia Hempfest in 2013. "Why does it matter?"
"Because there should never be another Peter McWilliams," Julia said, her fists clenched, her voice shaking with emotion. "Because people are still dying due to the federal marijuana laws."
Fourteen years after those laws resulted in the death of one of our best, bravest and brightest, and on the occasion of his 65th birthday, it's time for all of us to re-commit to making sure needless tragedies like the death of Peter McWilliams never happen again.