Medical marijuana supporters in at least 15 cities across the country gathered Tuesday evening to honor the memory of San Diego activist and patient Steve McWilliams, who committed suicide last week after years of struggles with his own pain and federal authorities.
McWilliams killed himself on his 51st birthday. In a suicide note that was distributed at the vigil, he alluded to problems with opioid pain medications he was forced to turn to after his 2002 arrest and protested against federal policies that he said left medical marijuana patients subject to arrest and imprisonment. "The law that was supposed to protect patients like me has been turned on its head so that no patient can feel safe ever again," McWilliams wrote. "I am an advocate and activist for a good cause -- my good health. As an activist I believe in acting when the time is right, to be an impeccable warrior. I believe that my actions -- of not being here -- can help move the discussion of medical marijuana back to what's good for the patient without the DEA telling us what medications we can use."
McWilliams lashed out at federal Judge Reuben Brooks, the man who blocked him from using medical marijuana, calling him "a wretched, evil little gnome" who practiced bad medicine from the bench, and the federal drug war machine in which Brooks is a cog. "I cannot allow the government to decide what drugs I must take. It's my life... I believe now though that I will be locked up in some kind of cell. I refuse to allow the government to control my life. That's what so much of this has been about -- my right to use a medicine that worked for me."
In San Diego, mourners signed messages in remembrance books and organizers handed out single-stemmed white roses as speaker after speaker paid tribute to the city's most dynamic medical marijuana activist. His life partner, Barbara McKenzie, urged the crowd to continue the fight despite last month's Supreme Court decision. "This was an injustice not only to him, but to thousands of patients who can't use their medicine," she said.
McWilliams had been a fixture at San Diego City Council meetings urging local officials to adopt medical marijuana guidelines, and the politicians remembered him as well. An aide to Mayor Pro Tem Toni Atkins read a statement calling McWilliams "a tenacious and relentless force to be reckoned with" and adding that "public comment at our City Council meetings will never be the same without his smiling face and cannabis leis."
Across the country in Washington, DC, several dozen activists, organized by Americans for Safe Access marked McWilliams' passing with a march through the city's Federal Triangle. Carrying a symbolic coffin, the crowd stopped at landmarks like the Supreme Court, the Justice Department and congressional office buildings, observing 30 seconds of silence at each stop. "It was very somber," said DRCNet assistant director David Guard, who attended the DC vigil. "We were not trying to block streets or get arrested or anything like that; we just wanted to let people know." The coffin marchers carried bore the lettering "Ask me how the feds killed Steve McWilliams." Vigils were reportedly also held in Los Angeles, Oakland, Orange County, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Sonoma, and Susanville in California, in Denver, Lawrenceburg, Indiana; Eugene and Portland, Oregon; Austin, Texas; and Philadelphia.
"As an activist I've given everything to the cause -- all my possessions, my time and my life," wrote McWilliams in his suicide note. "You can't give more than that." In the end, McWilliams took ultimate control over his life by ending it. In so doing, he died by the words he lived by, the last words he left us with: "No retreat. No surrender."