“I love my country, but I fear my government.”
“You’ll get my gun when you pry my cold, dead fingers off of it.”
Every time I travel to the United States, I see those words on bumper stickers adorning motor vehicles.
Used to be that I would rarely see such stickers, but now they are on more and more vehicles, from gas-guzzling, shiny new trucks to battered VW vans and Yuppie BMW’s.
I’ve yet to see similar bumper stickers on cars in Canada with Canadian license plates.
Why? Why so much fear and anger in the USA?
Steve McWilliams, a San Diego, California medical marijuana activist, may have felt fear, and he certainly felt anger, but he didn’t let either of those emotions stop him from standing in front of San Diego City Hall in the blazing SoCal sun, smoking joints and sharing marijuana with bystanders.
He was on a personal mission to force San Diego’s city government to implement California’s medical marijuana law, Proposition 215, passed by voters in 1996. The law required government agencies to ensure a safe supply of marijuana for qualified patients.
In 2005, when medical cannabis clubs are commonplace despite numerous court rulings that outlaw them, it’s hard to remember that police and other officials routinely ignored Prop. 215 in the early days after its passage. Few city governments other than those in Oakland and San Francisco made any attempt to set up or authorize a medpot supply system.
“They always said we had to change the law, and then we changed the law, and they kept enforcing the old law of marijuana prohibition. They just kept arresting people as if the old laws were still in effect,” explained Dennis Peron, the medical cannabis advocate and entrepreneur who was the public face of the pro-215 campaign.
Like Marc Emery, the Canadian marijuana proponent who sells cannabis seeds for a reasonable profit that he uses entirely to fund marijuana legalization activities, Peron earned huge amounts of cash selling weed at his famous San Francisco pot clubs- and he gave it all away to get Prop. 215 passed. After voters approved it, Peron used his money to pay for medical treatment, legal fees, living expenses and other necessities for hundreds of sick and dying marijuana users. He even leased a Lake County ranch and grew acres of marijuana while using the ranch as a pot garden hospice.
For his efforts, he was adored by many, but has also been back-stabbed and slagged by jealous rivals in the medical marijuana movement, many of whom today try to rewrite history by claiming that it was they, not Peron, who were the major force behind the uphill but ultimately successful campaign to convince voters to partially overturn marijuana prohibition. Such are the mixed rewards of being a leader in the marijuana movement.
Marc Emery, who funds this website, Pot-TV and Cannabis Culture magazine, has suffered the same fate. Despite giving away millions of dollars to a cause that at times seems futile, funding court challenges, supporting activism and events around the world, risking arrest, being imprisoned, and working seven days a week to run the most upfront marijuana lobbying and entrepreneurial organization in the world, he still finds himself the target of vicious attacks from those who would prefer that marijuana stay illegal so that the black market can prop up its price, or who are just jealous.
Emery has explained, as Peron did years ago, that his type of venture activism is a way of using prohibition, black market prices, and capitalism to fund the war on prohibition that will one day, if people like Peron, McWilliams, and Emery have their way, lead to the end of prohibition, the lowering of cannabis prices, and the restoration of full legal rights to one of nature’s most useful plants and those who enjoy it.
Steve McWilliams followed the lead of Peron and Emery, but also became an activist out of necessity. After a motorcycle accident left him in constant, severe pain, he used marijuana for relief, and was overjoyed when Californians legalized that use.
His joy turned to indignation and political action when he realized that the will of the voters hadn’t changed the way politicians, police and courts viewed marijuana. Patients were still being arrested, medicine seized and destroyed, defendants found guilty and sent to jail.
Steve was also inspired by medical patient Peter McWilliams (no relation), a staunch SoCal activist who grew thousands of marijuana plants while writing Libertarian books about freedom and cannabis.
Peter McWilliams was busted by the feds for growing pot. He eventually died from medical complications arising from being told by a federal judge that he could not use cannabis while in the federal court system facing marijuana charges.
Several years ago, Steve McWilliams went public with his demands that the government respect voters and human rights. He stood on the steps of City Hall, sometimes with a marijuana plant. He showed up at city council meetings with his companion plant, riling the council by insistent demands that San Diego follow the lead of Oakland, San Francisco and other cities that had already instituted pro-marijuana guidelines that protected citizens from federal invaders seeking to enforce federal marijuana law.
When council members moved too slowly to implement a city plan for protecting pot patients, McWilliams pushed harder, running for office, staging more public protests, working the media.
He was San Diego’s version of Marc Emery and Dennis Peron, an intelligent, gentle but fiercely determined man who appeared to have lost his ability to fear the government’s oppressive jackboot, who “flaunted” his marijuana use in an effort to gain attention for his cause.
He must have known that a prison cell or worse awaited him, but he kept smoking pot in public, protesting the 2002 DEA raid of the WAMM medical marijuana cooperative garden in Santa Cruz, vilifying the city council for its bureaucratic and timid response to the plight of marijuana-using patients.
He gained attention all right. Federal agents and conservative San Diego anti-pot officials conspired to bust him for growing marijuana, even though his garden was legal according to state law.
As is the case with so many marijuana defendants in states where medical cannabis has been made legal, McWilliams was prosecuted in federal court where judges won’t even allow people to mention marijuana or the state law legalizing it. He followed the example of other courageous marijuana defendants, such as Cannabis Culture grow guru Ed Rosenthal, by refusing to run from the charges, and continuing to state his intent to break marijuana laws, even while on trial for breaking them.
His vocal opposition to the feds and his refusal to stop doing activism resulted in a federal marijuana conviction in 2003. He was sentenced to prison, but was freed on post-trial bail pending the outcome of an appeal, and on the outcome of the Angel Raich case, which went all the way to the Supreme Court.
A few weeks ago in June, the Court decided, in the bitterly-contested 6-3 Raich ruling, that the federal government has the right to enforce federal prohibition in states where voters have rejected marijuana prohibition.
Justice Clarence Thomas, a strict conservative drug warrior who in the past has made rulings against medical marijuana, wrote in dissent that the constitution doesn’t authorize the federal government to make laws banning certain types of plants.
McWilliams agreed, but the federal judge presiding over McWilliams’ appeal didn’t, and he ordered McWilliams not to use marijuana while awaiting the results of the appeal.
As with Peter McWilliams, the judge’s order banning the use of marijuana while on federal bail was a death sentence for Steve. The judge knew that Steve and his doctors believed cannabis is a bona fide medicine that was the safest and most effective pain reliever McWilliams could use. The judge didn’t care. If McWilliams was caught using marijuana, the judge said, he would be thrown in jail.
McWilliams knew he would not be given marijuana, or even the pathetic prescription form of THC sometimes prescribed to patients, in federal prison.
His friends now say that McWilliams tried to comply with the judge’s pot ban, but was unable to. His pain became more and more severe. The judge and other federal officials callously suggested that McWilliams use prescription opiates which are less effective and far more harmful than marijuana.
The activist’s physical pain was exacerbated by psychic pain, and by anger. He knew that his government was trying to kill him. He knew that his future included life without marijuana, in a cage. A favorable ruling in the Raich case would have given him hope. Instead, Raich lost.
At vigils and memorial services held the third week of July in San Diego, in Washington, DC, and other cities across the country, people gathered to testify about Steve McWilliams.
They spoke of his courage, his sense of humor, his use of street theater, his lawsuit against municipal officials trying to force them to stop stalling the city’s implementation of Prop. 215, his participation in an official city government medical cannabis committee, and his tireless and ultimately successful efforts to force the San Diego City Council to adopt a medical marijuana ordinance that partially protects cannabis growers in San Diego.
Up the coast in Santa Cruz on July 16th, hundreds of cannabis activists gathered to protest the Supreme Court’s Raich decision and continuing arrests of marijuana users and growers.
They rallied in support of McWilliams and in support of Valerie and Mike Corral, who were raided in 2002 for running WAMM (the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana).
In the Santa Cruz City Hall courtyard, City Councilmember Cynthia Matthews read a proclamation signed by Santa Cruz Mayor Mike Rotkin. The statement declared July 16th “Medical Marijuana Day.”
Many members of the crowd held pictures of loved ones who died after the DEA’s WAMM raid deprived them of medicine.
A few days before the Santa Cruz memorial, on his 51st birthday, Steve McWilliams killed himself.
His suicide note said he could not live without marijuana due to the constant pain of his injuries, the oppression of the US government, and the prospect of a prison term without cannabis.
“Steve McWilliams was tortured by the federal government because of the medication he needed,” said Steph Sherer, director of the Berkeley-based Americans for Safe Access (ASA) medical marijuana organization. “There have been hundreds of messages mourning Steve and pointing fingers at the federal government.”
At memorial services that honored him, one solemn patient forcefully disputed the idea that McWilliams committed suicide.
“It is the policy of my government to torture and kill innocent people in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Cuba, and in our own country,” she said. “The government of the United States has always been in the killing business. Steve was not a suicide; he was a casualty of an illegal war. The police who arrested Steve, the prosecutor who prosecuted him, the members of the Supreme Court who upheld federal prohibition- they are all guilty of war crimes. It was not a suicide. My government killed him, and I will not rest until those who murdered Steve, and those who persecute our patients and our plants, all pay for their crimes.”