I never met Peter McWilliams, the late author and computer expert, though I talked to him once on the phone. McWilliams had written a lighthearted computer primer, and I needed help curing a sick Kaypro, which shows how long ago the conversation was. McWilliams died last month, choking to death during a bout of nausea. He suffered from AIDS-related lymphoma, and the chemotherapy he used to treat it caused him to retch. Like many patients using chemotherapy, he relieved this symptom by smoking marijuana. He grew several thousand plants, for his own use and for sale to cannabis buyers’ clubs, which in California (where he lived) are semi-tolerated after the passage of Proposition 215, a state law decriminalizing the medical use of marijuana. Federal anti-pot laws, however, remain in force, and the Constitution and Chief Justice Marshall teach us that they must prevail. McWilliams was arrested and charged with running a pot garden for profit. The judge at his trial did not allow him to mention Proposition 215 or his own medical condition. He was duly convicted, and while awaiting sentencing, was required by the terms of his bail to use only Marinol, the legal prescription drug that contains marijuana’s principal chemical agent. But McWilliams found that Marinol did not consistently do the trick (some of the dozens of other chemical agents in cannabis seem to have a positive marginal effect). Well, one time McWilliams’ Marinol didn’t do the trick was one time too many, and the Great Programmer hit the delete key. End of story.
We are in an election-induced dither about the possibility that capital punishment carries off people who are not in fact guilty, though the penalty’s opponents have yet to produce a case of a massacred innocent. Here is a verifiable case of a choked innocent, though no public figures less perverse than Representative Barney Frank and pundit William F. Buckley Jr. are willing to take on the pot laws. If accidental deaths are incurred in the pursuit of some just and overriding end, such as the deaths from friendly fire of our own soldiers that occur in all wars, then we swallow and accept them, and Dial-a-Thomist will talk us through all the necessary steps for avoiding evil intent. What just and overriding end do laws against medical marijuana serve?
The latest word on the grapevine is that the National Institutes of Health have concluded, at least provisionally, that cannabis can have a role in fighting Parkinson’s disease. Cannabis appears to speed the chemical dopamine to the receptors in the brain that are otherwise inhospitable to it. It would not be surprising if marijuana turned out to have an additional medical use; it would not even be unprecedented for the government to admit it, since a study, commissioned by the office of the drug czar and conducted by the National Academy of Sciences, did formally conclude, as did Peter McWilliams, that pot fights the nausea caused by chemotherapy. So we have a drug whose positive effects are demonstrated by experience and verified by testing, and whose negative effects (messing the lungs of smokers, messing the heads of dopers), while real, are far less serious than those of hundreds of items in the pharmacopoeia. We let patients, advised by doctors, ingest dangerous and potentially deadly substances all the time. Why not this substance?
Opponents of medical marijuana say it is a proxy for legal recreational use, and of course they are right. Opponents don’t want the sick to get pot, because they don’t want the healthy to have it, and most supporters (Peter McWilliams had lymphoma, but he was also a libertarian) hope that the experience of legal medical use will convince Americans that the drug is not the devil’s weed. I appeal to the baby boomers of America: Who is right? Potheads can be silly, boring and obnoxious. Drunks are better? Indulgence in pot can be a debilitating distraction for kids. Do you have a television in your house? There can be negative health effects from long-time overuse. But tobacco, despite its evil (and well-deserved) reputation, is still legal, and will not be prohibited as long as Al Capone and Eliot Ness remain in the national folk memory.
The case against the pot laws is twofold: the slight harm of the thing prohibited, and the great harm of the efforts to prohibit it. The media were recently filled with elated stories welcoming the election as President of Mexico of Vicente Fox Queseda, the first victorious candidate to come from outside the Institutional Revolutionary Party (P.R.I., in its Spanish acronym) in over 70 years. Fox has business experience, as a small manufacturer and as a former executive for Coca-Cola Inc. His Catholic school education jibes more with the overwhelming religious practice of Mexicans than the rigidly anti-clerical ideology of the P.R.I.-era state. He has promised to fight corruption, and he hopes that a booming economy will not only prevent waves of Mexican migrants from moving north, but will also lure back some of the 18 million who have recently moved here.
All these fine ideals and promises may founder on the parallel institutions of the Mexican narco-state. The enduring power of drug lords is not hard to figure out. If you are a farmer, or a cop, and you can make x by growing corn or doing your job, but 10 x by growing marijuana or looking the other way, which will you do? (Adjust the multiplier for other drugs accordingly.) Mr. Fox has a hard row ahead of him, and America, with its huge criminalized market and the markups it generates, is not going to help him any.
There is a third-fold to the case against the pot laws-the infringement on our freedom. Why, in the absence of Biblical injunction or settled moral tradition, should Washington take such an interest in our pleasures and our vices? The first President sent an army to crush the Whiskey Rebellion, but he did it because distillers were not paying taxes, not because he dreamed of making whiskey illegal. Now our leaders smoke pot (but don’t inhale) and hound Peter McWilliams.