Peter McWilliams

I just noticed that Rogier van Bakel has a blogroll link to Peter McWilliams’s free on-line version of his magnificant book Ain’t Nobody’s Business If You Do: The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in a Free Country. The premise of the book is simple:

This book is about a single idea—consenting adults should not be put in jail unless they physically harm the person or property of a nonconsenting other.

He calls laws that violate this principle “consensual crimes” rather than the more common “victimless crimes” because he feels the latter has too much baggage—from people claiming that it’s a victimless crime to steal from a corporation, to lawyers pointing out that some crimes technically have no victims, to moral scolds who insist that “we are all victims”—whereas “consensual crimes” focuses on the key issue, which is the consent of all involved.

McWilliams goes on to elaborate on this idea for hundreds of pages. I could quibble with some of the details, but this book has had a strong influence on my moral philosophy. I think his main point is completely correct, and it continues to shape my beliefs about the proper goals and limits for our system of justice. Consensual crimes should not be crimes at all.

The experience of browsing through the whole Peter McWilliams site is a little spooky. It’s got his books online, a short biography of Peter McWilliams, and even a place to sign up for his e-mail list. But there’s one very important piece of information that doesn’t appear anywhere on any page. This is a zombie site. Peter McWilliams has been dead for eight years.

In 1996, he was diagnosed with AIDS and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The medicine he used to treat these diseases made him extremely nauseated, a condition he was able to ameliorate by smoking marijuana. During this time he became an outspoken advocate of medical marijuana.

Possibly as a response to that advocacy, the DEA arrested McWilliams and another man, charging them with various crimes in connection with a medical marijuana operation. Forbidden by the judge from mentioning his medical condition in court, he was forced to plead guilty and hope for leniency. While out on $250,000 bond for sentencing, and refraining from using marijuana as a condition of the bond secured by his mother’s house, he apparently vomited and choked to death.

A memorial site for Peter McWilliams has this quote from his essay “Joy is Good”:

In March 1996, I opened the door to death and stared the Grim Reaper in the face. There was a pause. Then he suddenly smiled and said, “Enjoy yourself! It’s later than you think.”

William F. Buckley eulogized Peter McWilliams as “a wry, mythogenic guy, humorous, affectionate, articulate, shrewd, sassy.”

It’s hard to imagine a more ironic death for such a generous spirit, a man who wanted so much for people to be free. It all sounds like some bad made-for-TV movie on the Lifetime channel. Some part of me thinks that Peter would probably appreciate the irony.

I’ve decided to link to Peter McWilliams’s site under new blogroll category that will probably grow as I and my fellow denizens of the internet get older: Gone But Not Forgotten.

Although the category’s purpose is to remember those who inspired us, enthralled us, and entertained us, it also serves a purpose in this case that Peter might not approve of. It is a reminder that Peter was essentially murdered by a bunch of drug warriors, and that the kinds of people who did that to him should also not be forgotten. Nor forgiven.

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