The NORML staff and I mourn the passing of longtime medical-marijuana activist and patient Steve McWilliams, who took his own life in July after suffering years of ill health and federal persecution. McWilliams was 51.

Friends of McWilliams, who was co-director of San Diego’s Shelter from the Storm cannabis dispensary and an original member of the city’s Medical Cannabis Task Force, report that he had grown increasingly depressed in the weeks prior to his death. McWilliams was recognized by NORML and HIGH TIMES as Freedom Fighter of the Month in the Dec. ’99 issue of HT.

In 2003, McWilliams was sentenced to six months in federal prison for maintaining a modest 20-plant garden in his home, in compliance with California law. He had been free on bond, pending appeal, but was forbidden by the terms of his probation to treat himself with medicinal cannabis, which he used under a doctor’s supervision for chronic pain resulting from a near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1992. Following the Supreme Court decision in June affirming the federal government’s authority to prosecute state-authorized medical-cannabis patients for violating the federal Controlled Substances Act, McWilliams worried that he would be ordered to serve out his federal prison sentence. He’d been experiencing a great deal of pain and had expressed concern to friends that he wouldn’t be able to survive his sentence because of his deteriorating health.

While cannabis use can’t cause death, cannabis prohibition can and does. The federal government’s persecution of Steve McWilliams for using medicinal cannabis was needless, cruel and clearly played a role in his untimely death. A government for and by the people should never force sick and dying patients like Steve into confronting such a disturbing Hobson’s choice.

“Steve was a courageous fighter for the cause,” California NORML’s Dale Gieringer says. “He will be sorely missed.” Let’s hope for and aggressively work toward no more marijuana martyrs in our lifetimes.

Allen St. Pierre is executive director of NORML. To learn more about medical marijuana and NORML’s long history of legal and advocacy work toward making medical marijuana legally accessible, go to norml.org or call (888) 67-NORML.