A Martyr to a Cause, a Trouble Maker, or a Misguided Fool
By KEITH TAYLOR
Voice Guest Columnist
Wednesday, July 20, 2005
Some folks gathered for a sad ceremony at San Diego's City Concourse as well as at venues in at least 15 other cities Tuesday. They came to commemorate and to say goodbye to a man many thought was a hero in one of America's longest running wars. Only this war wasn't against another country or even against terrorists, and the person being honored wasn't on the winning side. Steve McWilliams earned his hero status in September 2002 when he was arrested while trying to help others. Steve was giving marijuana to folks whose pain from illnesses could be alleviated by the stuff -- an act he insisted was legal under Proposition 215. That was the proposition overwhelmingly passed by California voters in 1996. Unfortunately, by 2002, the U.S. Attorney General -- himself insisting that federal law trumped state law -- was prosecuting those who grew the plant. And don't look for a big change in the picture. In the Raich decision last month, the Supreme Court justices agreed that growing marijuana even for medicinal use was illegal no matter what the states decided. I haven't seen any objections from the party claiming to be for states' rights.
So, Steve McWilliams was on the losing end of his quest to grow the stuff, but what sort of guy would take on such a challenge anyhow? His partner, Barbara MacKenzie, told me McWilliams lived in constant pain caused by a motorcycle accident. Proposition 215 was practically a godsend for him. He not only used marijuana to alleviate his own pain, he cultivated fewer than 26 plants in a small plot behind his house. In addition, he shared it, charging others only for the cost of growing it. One neighbor described him as a kind and gentle man.
Talk show host Stacy Taylor, no stranger to crackpots, said McWilliams clearly was not a crackpot, but one who made a great effort to operate within the law. McWilliams once ran for city council in the third district getting about 7 percent of the votes while losing to Councilwoman Toni Atkins. Despite losing, he gained a friend and a supporter of his cause. After she was elected, Atkins pushed through one of his pet projects.
Atkins sent me a statement: ". . . He was a tireless and dedicated advocate for sick people and their access to medicinal marijuana. Steve was the driving force that pushed the city into action on this issue when the county refused to act. My heart goes out to Steve's parents, his close friend Barbara MacKenzie, and his many, many friends. This is truly a loss for the community."
So, Steve was a nice guy who operated within the system and was respected by so many, how about the killer weed he promoted? Were his efforts diminished by the harm it did to society? You'd think so. It has a negative history that includes egregious movies like Reefer Madness. It also has complete bipartisan support for banning it forever from pristine America. For example, Clinton spent far more on drug suppression than his predecessor, George H. W. Bush. Furthermore, his "drug czar" Barry McCaffrey even used federal money to support movies and magazine articles that made Reefer Madness look reasonable. Still, the trouble with defining marijuana as a killer weed is that it doesn't kill anybody. Unlike, say, tobacco and booze, not one single death has been directly attributed to the stuff young folks call pot. At least, I suppose they still call it that. I, a wheezing septuagenarian, have smoked less of it than Clinton claimed to have smoked.
But how about the notion that it isn't effective in alleviating pain? Surely our scientists can come up with something that works far better than ingesting or inhaling the fumes from a mere plant. Not so far, they haven't.
I checked with my own guru of scientific and clinical topics, Dr. Elie Shneour, head of San Diego Biosystems Research Institute. Elie also has enough degrees and accolades to fill a quarter-page in Who's Who. With no ax to grind, I put a lot more stock in what he says than in what's told to me by any politician who is trying to harness the hysteria of defending against a killer weed that doesn't kill. Elie told me, "For some people, marijuana is the only effective palliative for extreme pain. ... It is 'bioavailable' to alleviate the pain, i.e. it goes to the source of the pain. It is much more effective than tetrahydrocanabinol (THC), which is derived from marijuana and, with difficultly, available from official sources. Other drugs or medicines simply will not do that."
Steve McWilliams took his own life about an hour after he turned 51. Barbara MacKenzie said she had no doubt whatsoever that he was unable to stand the pain, which he wasn't allowed to alleviate by the best palliative available.
Keith Taylor is a retired Navy officer living in Chula Vista, Calif.