HE TOOK HIS OWN LIFE AFTER LONG LEGAL FIGHT
More than 100 people showed up at San Diego City Hall yesterday to pay respects to Steven Joe McWilliams, the longtime medical marijuana activist who killed himself last week after a lengthy fight with federal authorities.
As part of the tribute, organizers handed out single-stemmed white roses and copies of the suicide note McWilliams left behind. They in no way avoided the grim circumstances of his death, which came on his 51st birthday.
Mourners lined up by the dozens to post messages in a notebook set up beside a platform, where speaker after speaker remembered McWilliams as a tireless champion of patients' rights.
"Hero. Martyr. Friend," one signatory wrote.
Barbara MacKenzie, who was McWilliams' partner in life and in running the Shelter from the Storm medical marijuana resource center, urged the lunch-hour audience to carry on McWilliams' activist spirit.
She pledged to continue fighting for patients' rights to grow and use marijuana under California's Compassionate Use Act despite a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court last month confirming the federal government's authority to prosecute marijuana users.
"This was an injustice not only to him but to thousands of patients who can't use their medicine," MacKenzie said.
After her initial comments, MacKenzie read McWilliams' suicide note out loud while much of the audience followed along silently. When she got to the part where he criticized the government for denying him medicinal relief and for threatening to lock him up, she briefly lost her composure.
"This was my last chance to help the medical marijuana movement and others that I care about," she said, quoting McWilliams, her voice cracking with emotion. "That's what so much of this has been about - my right to use a medicine that worked for me."
Several AIDS patients and cancer survivors attended the service, some of them in wheelchairs. Many medical marijuana supporters credit the drug with stimulating appetites, easing the side effects of chemotherapy or otherwise reducing pain and discomfort. McWilliams smoked marijuana to relieve chronic pain he suffered after a motorcycle crash.
More than a dozen speakers took to the podium to offer remembrances and tributes to McWilliams, who was arrested at least four times for testing the limits of the state medical marijuana law.
McWilliams was long regarded as something of a gadfly. He regularly showed up at City Council meetings to urge the local officials to implement the state law. His tenacity paid off in 2003, when San Diego became the largest city in the country to adopt medical marijuana guidelines.
An aide to Mayor Pro Tem Toni Atkins read a statement at the memorial calling McWilliams "a tenacious and relentless force to be reckoned with" and concluding that "public comment at our City Council meetings will never be the same without his smiling face and cannabis leis."
McWilliams often wore marijuana leaf necklaces or carried a small marijuana plant to help make his point to council members.
One of his attorneys called it a privilege to represent McWilliams.
David Zugman told mourners that no matter how serious his client's legal troubles were, McWilliams never failed to ask Zugman how his children were doing, and what other important things were going on.
"It is a great sadness of mine that I wasn't able to win his case,"
said Zugman, who had been appealing McWilliams' 2003 federal conviction for illegal cultivation. That appeal has now been dismissed.
The service coincided with other remembrances arranged by medical marijuana supporters in at least 15 other cities.
In Washington, D.C., 50 people marched from the Supreme Court to the Capitol, carrying placards declaring "The Federal Government Killed Steve McWilliams. Let Me Tell You How," Steph Sherer of the advocacy group Americans for Safe Access told the San Diego crowd.
At that, scores of people clapped loudly.