Escalating its drive against California's medical-marijuana movement, the Clinton administration last week indicted nine Southern California residents on charges of conspiracy to grow over 6,000 marijuana plants at four separate sites, with intent to distribute. The nine-count indictment arises from an almost yearlong investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Internal Revenue Service's Criminal Investigation Division, along with the L.A. County Sheriff's Department.
The government has painted Peter McWilliams, a 49-year-old author, publisher and AIDS sufferer who is a leader in the medical-marijuana movement statewide, as the kingpin of the conspiracy. The indictment charges him with using his publishing company, Prelude Press, to underwrite the pot-growing operations. Since his arrest on July 23 at his Laurel Canyon home, McWilliams has been held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown Los Angeles in lieu of $250,000 bail.
McWilliams issued a written statement denying the government charges. “I have never sold a drug in my life,” McWilliams wrote. “I have never asked or authorized anyone to sell a drug. I have never profited from any drug deal, ever.”
Also indicted with McWilliams was Todd McCormick, who attained a degree of notoriety as the target of a July 1997 raid on Stone Canyon Road in Bel Air by L.A. County Sheriff's Department and the DEA. A childhood cancer survivor and medical-marijuana/hemp activist, McCormick was dubbed the “Pot Prince of Bel Air” by the media and guested with his friend Woody Harrelson on Politically Incorrect.
Other defendants include Andrew Scott Hass, 34; David Richards, 25; Christopher Carrington, 32; Gregg Collier, 25; Aleksandra Evanguelidi, 24; Renee Boje, 28; and Kirill Dyjine, a.k.a. Hermes Zygott, 33. Zygott was nabbed in the Bel Air bust with McCormick and is a well-known musician in hemp-activist circles. These new indictments supersede previous charges.
Complicating the dope opera is a series of references in the 43-page indictment to statements by members of another faction in the medical-marijuana movement, all associated with the L.A. Cannabis Resource Center. In particular, Scott Imler, director of the center and a co-author of Proposition 215, the initiative that legalized the medical use of marijuana in California, testified before a grand jury about McWilliams.
Imler said in an interview that after McCormick's bust last summer he spoke to McWilliams, who told him that he'd given the DEA all the checks he'd written to Todd and “told them the truth.” When the feds came knocking on Imler's door, he says he likewise answered their questions truthfully, as he did later when called in front of the federal grand jury. Imler and the other L.A. cannabis-club employees were granted limited immunity, meaning they could not plead the Fifth Amendment to avoid testifying.
From the outset of the medical-marijuana movement in California, Imler has been critical of the tactics of the more gonzo outlaws associated with the McWilliams-McCormick camp; instead, he advocates an aboveboard, by-the-book approach, keeping strict limits on production and distribution of the banned weed.
Imler and company are now being accused of egregious snitchery through Internet postings, media statements and intra-movement communiques. Ralph O. Williams III, an attorney and friend of McWilliams, sent out a written plea for bail money for his friend and accused Imler of being “the person who turned Peter in.”
Imler, who has agreed to an open-door policy with the West Hollywood Sheriff's Department and City Council, has continually maintained that the only road to legitimacy is to operate under the principle of “transparency.” He was critical of the scale of McCormick's crop (4,116 plants, according to the cop count), and has insisted on separating the issue of medical use from legalization and hemp.
The federal indictments portray an elaborate conspiracy to grow marijuana for profit, paid for by checks and credit cards from McWilliams' Prelude Press. According to the feds, there were four separate locations where pot was grown: McCormick's Stone Canyon residence, houses in Chino and Van Nuys overseen by Scott Hass, and another house owned by McWilliams in Laurel Canyon. Detailed throughout is a laundry list of grow equipment that reads like the classified section of High Times: electrical outlets, subpanel boxes, conduits, pumps, timers, sifters (used in the manufacture of hashish), thousands of pots, soil, scales, fertilizer, nutrients, chemicals, vermiculite, ballasts, hoods, ladybugs, fans, rockwool, a moisture meter, grow lights, light movers, light rails, lamps, trays, clear-plastic sheeting, a carbon-dioxide generator, atmospheric controllers and more.
Most of the overt acts listed in the indictment concern money transfers made directly to the defendants for rent on the residences, alleged meetings between defendants, and the seized product and equipment. The five acts in which the L.A. Cannabis Resource Center is cited quote club employees who repeated McWilliams' alleged boasts. He wanted to become the “Bill Gates of medical marijuana” – McWilliams claims the Gates reference was a joke made by his lawyer – and he intended “to become the largest supplier of medical marijuana in the country, distributing high-quality marijuana clones through the mail, and he wanted to enter into a grow contract with the club for the sale of marijuana at $4,800 per pound.” Other allegations include transfer of marijuana, grow lights and other equipment to the L.A. club, and a discussion between defendant Hass and club employees about hypothetically setting up a hydroponic growing operation.
Hass is a former entertainment-industry stunt coordinator who maintains that he sustained numerous injuries in his line of work, making him, like McWilliams and McCormick, a legitimate user of medical marijuana. He says he was brought in to Prelude Press by his friend McWilliams as a business consultant to fix financial snafus, and that much of the alleged dope-business moneys were legitimate payments to him for relocation, salary, etc. The only involvement in marijuana that he'll admit to was that he was investigating methods of cannabis delivery that were alternatives to smoking.
McCormick's explanation is the same as it's been since the Stone Canyon Road bust: that he was simultaneously growing for personal use and researching the efficacy of different strains for particular illnesses, and that he had hypothetical plans to distribute cheap, medical-quality pot to cannabis clubs.
Both Hass and McCormick say they barely knew each other, thereby making moot the conspiracy charges. But as Laurie Levenson, associate dean of Loyola Law School, notes, “You do not need to know your co-conspirators or to have met them. The fact that you know there's a larger operation going on is sufficient.” Attempts to contact the other defendants have been unsuccessful.
Peter McWilliams is the author of The Personal Computer Book, a 1979 manual that heralded the soon-to-be-ubiquitous home PC and dozens of other popular tomes ranging in subject from self-help to romantic poetry. The author launched Prelude Press in the early '80s, obviating the need to hawk his books to the majors and eliminating the financial middleman.
In 1996, McWilliams was diagnosed with AIDS as well as non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He says he hadn't smoked marijuana for close to 20 years, but that he tried the drug again and found that it alleviated the nausea and other side effects from medications and treatments. He became fascinated with the medicinal properties of pot and briefly lent office space to the Los Angeles cannabis club.
That same year, Californians passed Proposition 215, an event McWilliams saw as portentous. McWilliams described his mindset at the time in an interview last November: “You had [DEA honcho Thomas] Constantine going in front of Congress saying, 'Marijuana is legal in California!' All the law-enforcement people . . . basically saying, 'We're throwing up our hands.' We interpreted this as being 'It's now all legal.'”
McWilliams developed a plan for an advocacy and research entity called the Medical Botanical Foundation, which would promote alternative medicines such as hypericum (St. Johnswort) and marijuana. He called his friend William F. Buckley Jr., who, despite his conservative credentials, is an outspoken opponent of the drug war. Buckley referred McWilliams to his friend Dick Cowan, a former director of NORML who, like McWilliams, is a gay, reefer-smoking, libertarian.
Cowan had become a pot-patriate in Amsterdam and befriended hempster and avid, albeit amateur, medical-marijuana researcher Todd McCormick. McWilliams worked out a six-figure deal with McCormick for a book; and early in '97, McCormick set up shop in the house on Stone Canyon Road in Bel Air.
While the legalities of McWilliams' schemes will eventually be decided in a court of law, even those who are less than worshipful are horrified by the way he's been treated while in custody. For at least four days he was denied his AIDS medications, including protease inhibitors, which, according to Ged Kenslea of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, could cause his virus to replicate into untreatable mutations. McWilliams says he continues being refused Marinol, a legal pill form of THC, which enables him to hold down his other medications. He also charges that his medicine is being irregularly disbursed.
Taylor Flynn, staff attorney of the ACLU, has cited the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Federal Rehabilitation Act, the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, and the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, in McWilliams' defense and has petitioned U.S. Attorney Nora Manella to rectify this emergency immediately.