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Reefer Refugees

No American has ever been granted Canadian refugee status because of the war on drugs, but the times they may be changing.
 
 
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To shirts at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), she's a dangerous criminal on the run from justice, a big-time narcotics dealer who should be punished more severely than rapists and murderers. To her friends and supporters, she's a symbol of the drug war run amok, a political victim of the U.S. government's vendetta against medical marijuana.

Her name is Renee Boje (pronounced Boz-shay) and she's an international fugitive who is wanted in the United States where she faces a mandatory- minimum of 10 years in jail for allegedly watering pot plants at the Los Angeles home of an ailing friend who had a state license to grow and consume cannabis.

Boje is one of several Americans who have requested political asylum in Canada, claiming they face persecution by the U.S. government because of their use and advocacy of medicinal hemp. Boje, 35, notes that Canada has a long history of welcoming American refugees -- from Sitting Bull's Lakota Indians and runaway slaves in the 19th century to the Vietnam-era draft resisters who came to Canada to avoid military service.

"My deepest hope is that Canada will again open its heart and help American citizens who are being abused by their own government because of their association with a healing herb," says Boje.

If Canada, which legalized medical marijuana in the summer of 2001, grants refugee status to Boje or any other U.S. drug war expatriate, it would have major legal and political ramifications, delivering an unprecedented rebuke to the U.S. criminal justice system and to America's self-image as a beacon of human rights. In addition to sending a pointed message that Canada believes U.S. drug policies are too harsh, such a landmark decision could significantly affect U.S.-Canadian relations by providing sanctuary to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pot-smoking Americans.

The Bust and the Battle

The seeds of the battle currently being played out in the Canadian courts were planted back in 1996 when Californians approved by a wide margin Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act, which authorized the possession, cultivation, and distribution of marijuana for personal medical use under a doctor's supervision. Ten states have followed California's lead and enacted similar measures. These initiatives, however, conflict with U.S. federal legislation that bans marijuana across the board, making no exceptions despite compelling evidence that cannabis helps to relieve nausea and restore the appetite of cancer and AIDS patients.

A versatile plant with "clear medicinal benefits," according to a recent article in Scientific American , cannabis has been used for centuries to reduce pain and improve the lives of people with a variety of ailments, including migraines, menstrual cramps, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, epilepsy, insomnia, anorexia, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

But the feds said nope to medicinal dope and launched a crackdown. Renee Boje, fresh out of college, was busted in July 1997 along with eight other people in the first federal raid of a medical marijuana garden after Proposition 215 became California law. Four thousand plants (mostly seedlings) were seized at the Bel Air estate of cancer patient Todd McCormick, who maintained he was breeding different strains of cannabis to test their effects on different symptoms. He had hired Boje to illustrate a book on how to grow medical marijuana, her first job as a freelance artist.

DEA agents grabbed Boje and brought her to the federal prison for women in downtown Los Angeles, where they pressured her to testify against her cohorts. When she refused, she was charged with growing and conspiring to sell marijuana. But neither she nor any of her alleged co-conspirators would be allowed to mention state law sanctioning medical marijuana as part of their criminal defense.

Traumatized by her treatment in jail and unwilling to submit to a show trial in which she would not be able to present her side of the story, Boje heeded the advice of an American lawyer and fled to British Columbia in May 1998. She's been on an emotional rollercoaster ever since she slipped across the border with $50 in her pocket and began a precarious new life on the lam. "I realized that I probably would never be able to return, but that was okay with me," Boje explained, "because I would rather be free in Canada than in prison in the United States."

Boje eventually settled in the Vancouver area, where a flourishing ganja subculture had taken root. With its permissive ambience and a city council that favors pot legalization, "Vansterdam," as it's known among the cannabis cognoscenti, is probably the only urban center in North America where people ask in earnest whether a no-smoking sign at a restaurant applies only to tobacco or to reefer as well. Hip strips with hemp stores and cannabis cafes are both tourist attractions and essential hang-outs for local tokers.

On the south end of Commercial Drive, the Compassion Club Society offers a variety of marijuana medicaments to 3,000 regular clients with a doctor's note. (People with permission to use medicinal pot are often too ill to grow their own; hence the need for buyers' clubs.) For those unable to visit the office, the daily menu is also accessible via recorded phone message with a cheerful voice that occasionally breaks into song: "We have Queen Jane, an indica sativa, tasty, fragrant, and good for appetite ... Purple Pine Berry, good for pain relief ... ."

Boje quietly found her niche within Vancouver's cannabis community. When American officials got wind of her whereabouts, they filed a fast-track extradition request, a special procedure usually reserved for the most serious criminal suspects. "They want to scare people by making an example of me," contends Boje. "They want to show what happens if you get involved with medical marijuana."

Boje threw down the gauntlet and challenged authorities on both sides of the border by launching a historic campaign for political asylum. No one had ever been granted refugee status in Canada because of the war on drugs. Boje's attorney, John Conroy, warned that she faced an uphill battle. After an initial hearing, Canadian immigration officials ordered that she be deported to the United States, but a final decision is conditional on the outcome of her asylum claim, which is now before the Canadian Justice Ministry.

Conroy has argued that Boje's supposed role in the L.A. pot-growing operation, then permitted under California law (which did not put a ceiling on the number of plants that patients can cultivate), was peripheral at most, and a mandatory 10-year prison term for Boje, who had no prior record of criminal activity, constitutes outrageously cruel and unusual punishment. Conroy also cited reports by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations that document the abuse of women in U.S. prisons, and he drew attention to the fact that Norway had recently refused to extradite an American charged with smuggling hashish, citing "inhumane" conditions in U.S. jails.

Boje felt like a torch had been passed to her. Though innately shy and soft-spoken, she embraced her role as a catalyst for change, a crusader for medicinal marijuana, and became the poster gal of Vancouver's pro-pot movement. She organized rallies, gave speeches, and drummed up letters of support for her legal case from the likes of actor/hemp-activist Woody Harrelson and social critic Noam Chomsky. "I saw that I had an opportunity to do something really great," Boje said. "I felt empowered to speak out for others who were under attack by the U.S. government because of their commitment to medical cannabis."

Conscientious Objection

Among American conscientious objectors to the drug war, perhaps none has a stronger case for winning asylum in Canada than Steve Kubby, who has been battling a rare and highly aggressive form of adrenal cancer. It's not a stretch to say that his quest for refugee status is a matter of life and death.

Kubby always had a voracious appetite for living on the edge. This rugged American individualist was a ski racer, a mountain-climber, a deep-sea diver, and a pilot with top secret security clearance who broke the sound barrier flying an F-5 fighter jet. But Kubby's world caved in when he learned that his body was riddled with cancer. When they opened him up, the doctors found that malignant tumors had spread to his bladder, stomach, liver and spleen. Kubby underwent four major surgeries, chemotherapy, and several debilitating rounds of radiation, but nothing worked. Medical experts pronounced his condition terminal and said he would not live for much longer than a year.

Kubby's energy was draining away when his former college roommate, Richard "Cheech" Marin dropped by to cheer him up. Cheech lit a joint for old time's sake and told his companero, hey if you're going to die, then why not die happy? Kubby took a few hits, and, wow, he hadn't felt this good in a while. He started to self-medicate with marijuana on a regular basis. That was 30 years ago.

A miracle of pre-modern medicine, Kubby, now 58, credits his survival to smoking up to an ounce of cannabis every day. Adhering to a strict dietary regimen, he supplements his steady intake of THC (the main psychoactive ingredient of marijuana) with generous swabs of cholesterol-lowering hempseed oil -- super-rich in protein and essential fatty acids -- which he spreads on toast. "I don't have a medicine cabinet. I don't take any pharmaceutical drugs, except for a rare dose of antibiotics. I don't drink coffee, tea or soda," says Kubby, who likens his use of marijuana to a diabetic's use of insulin.

In 1999, Dr. Vincent DeQuattro, one of the world's leading specialists on adrenal cancer, examined Kubby and concluded that cannabis stabilized his adrenal function, which is perpetually on the verge of overdrive, and inhibited the growth of various tumors that remain in his body to this day. (Recent studies conducted by Spanish scientists in Madrid have shown that THC injections destroyed malignant brain tumors in rats.) If Kubby is deprived of cannabis, according to DeQuattro, adrenaline will overwhelm his system and his blood pressure will spike to dangerous levels, which could cause excruciating headaches, blindness, a heart attack, kidney failure or a fatal seizure.

Kubby was living near Squaw Valley, the California ski resort, in 1995 when he met and married Michele Nelson, who worked at a San Francisco securities firm. "I was a total Reaganite, a young Republican," said Michele, who had grown weary of business and politics as usual. But the campaign for Proposition 215, which the Kubbys helped launch, was anything but usual.

When the Kubbys saw that the federal government was hell-bent on trashing California's medical marijuana law, Steve ran for governor on the Libertarian Party ticket in 1998 to highlight this issue. Kubby stood on the steps of the state capital in Sacramento, held up a bottle of aspirin and a big bud of home-grown cannabis, and asked which was more dangerous, the aspirin that kills more than 2,000 Americans a year, or marijuana, which has never been known to kill anyone.

Law enforcement did not take kindly to his antics. Shortly after the election, 20 heavily armed SWAT team members battered down the Kubbys' door, confiscated their 265-plant marijuana garden, and hauled Steve and Michele off to Placer County jail. Three days in the slammer without reefer nearly did him in. His captors mocked his requests for medicinal cannabis and went out of their way to punish him. "I was forced to attend breakfast where my repeated bouts of vomiting could be witnessed by the rest of the inmates who were trying to eat their meal," recounted Kubby, who believes that he and his wife (who is also a prescription cannabis user) were arrested because of their outspoken roles as med-pot advocates.

The police, meanwhile, had taken nearly everything the Kubbys owned, including their office equipment, which they used to operate an online sports magazine. (Real estate, cash, securities, and any other property allegedly linked to a marijuana offense are subject to immediate seizure under civil forfeiture statutes enacted in the mid-1980s.) As a result, the Kubbys lost their business and were forced into bankruptcy. They also had to deal with the hassle and expense of obtaining enough cannabis on the black market for their medical needs. And a costly wrangle in court loomed as both Kubbys were charged with conspiring to cultivate and sell marijuana.

Fearful of another life-threatening stint in jail and tired of tangling with G-men who sought to prevent them from exercising their legal right to use medical marijuana, Kubby and his wife decided to leave the country. In the spring of 2001, they drove to British Columbia with their two young daughters and applied for asylum on the grounds that they have a "well-founded fear of persecution" by drug warriors in the United States, where there's a warrant outstanding for Kubby's arrest.

The Kubbys now reside in Sun Peaks, a mountain town five hours northeast of Vancouver. Like Boje, they hover in legal limbo while Canadian justice officials weigh their petitions. Michele Kubby took it upon herself to learn the law and develop her skills as a self-taught attorney. She recently argued the couple's immigration case before a federal appeals court in Canada and is waiting for a ruling from the judge. If the Kubbys succeed in getting asylum, it would be a big boost for Renee Boje and others seeking relief from U.S. drug policies.

Theological Police

When George W. Bush was governor of Texas, he opined that medical marijuana was an issue for each state to deal with. But Bush flip-flopped when he became president and made med-pot a top law enforcement priority. Barely a month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Attorney General John Ashcroft unleashed his theological police against state-mandated cannabis clubs in California, while the IRS took aim at physicians who prescribed reefer. The feds' anti-marijuana pogrom escalated nationwide, yielding an all-time record of more than 750,000 pot arrests (mainly for possession) in 2003, which vastly exceeded the number of arrests for all violent crimes combined that year in the United States. The DEA even tried to ban food products containing non-psychoactive hemp.

"The draconian policies of the Bush administration triggered an exodus of reefer refugees to Vancouver," says Boje, who currently runs Urban Shaman, a store specializing in artifacts and information about peyote, iboga, ayahuasca, and other entheogenic (vision-inducing) plants that are copasetic in Canada but illegal south of the border. "I've heard from many people who want to leave the United States," Boje says. "They come into the store and ask for advice about how to claim refugee status in Canada."

Not everyone who flees to Canada wants to be high-profile like Boje and the Kubbys. Some find the means to stay and blend in with Vancouver's burgeoning ganja scene, while others hitch a ride on the underground reefer railway (an elusive network of safe-houses and sympathetic contacts) that transports them further up the coast or into the mountains of British Columbia where they can lie low and, if need be, disappear.

"I've met lots of Americans coming through," says David Malmo-Levine, a prominent Vancouver pot activist. "Several Americans have slept on my couch. I know many of my friends have similar stories. It's an act of resistance to aid and abet fleeing refugees. Canadians have a responsibility to help American dissidents if they can."

For Malmo-Levine, founder of what he calls the "School of Drug War History and Organic Cultivation" in a ramshackle storefront in downtown Vancouver, marijuana is not just an herb or a medicine, but a political cause, a revolutionary sacrament. "We're here, we're high, we're out of the closet," he declares, while stocking bins of bat-excrement-enriched fertilizer he says is great for growing reefer. The bat guano will be sold at his museum-school, where some of the leading lights of the cannabis community recently gathered to bid farewell to Ken Hayes, another American drug war expatriate.

With tired eyes and hunched shoulders, Hayes looks older than his 37 years. Yet he has always managed to stay one step ahead of U.S. law enforcement. A legend in medical marijuana lore for his copious gardens in northern California, Hayes supplied Bay Area cannabis clubs with large amounts of high-quality organic weed. He was executive director of Cannabis Helping Alleviate Medical Problems (CHAMP), a San Francisco med-pot dispensary, which was officially honored by the S.F. Board of Supervisors.

But trouble was brewing. In 2001, Hayes beat a rap for growing 900 medicinal pot plants after San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan appeared as a star witness on his behalf. Exoneration in state court, however, didn't stop the feds from training their sights on Hayes. He fled to Vancouver in January 2002, just before the U.S. Attorney was going to press charges against him that carried the obligatory minimum of 10 years to life.

"I came here because American authorities wanted to put me in jail for growing medicine for sick and dying people," Hayes asserted. He also applied for political asylum, but got an initial thumbs-down from Canadian officials. After two and a half years in British Columbia, he did not intend to wait for an official announcement as to when he would be sent back to the United States. "I'll only return when they decide to restore the Bill of Rights," said Hayes, who was preparing to skip town once again.

But vanishing is not an option for Renee Boje, who lives in a modest Vancouver apartment with her Canadian husband Chris Bennett, and their 3-year-old son. Bennett is the manager of Pot-TV, a web-based video channel that caters to an international pot-smoking audience. "I have put roots down here," Boje explains. "My family is here. I have a business here. I have no intention of running. I don't want to go into hiding. That's not my path."

For the moment, Boje remains at the mercy of the Canadian Justice Ministry, which is expected to rule on her case in early 2005. One more legal appeal is possible if the decision doesn't go her way. The most difficult challenge she faces is grappling with the possibility that her son might lose his mother. "I could be fearless about it all until I had a child. Then I suddenly felt very vulnerable," says Boje. "I know that if I lose, I lose big. But if I win, everybody wins."

Pot Protestors

Boje's feisty spirit endeared her to millionaire Marc Emery, Vancouver's notorious "prince of pot," who has been a mainstay of moral and financial support for several U.S. drug war refugees. Emery, the godfather of Boje's son, runs a lucrative mail order enterprise selling cannabis seeds to a worldwide cliental. ("Overgrow the government!" is one of his mottos.) An inveterate rabble-rouser, he led a Puff-In on Parliament Hill during President Bush's diplomatic visit to Ottawa in December 2004. It was Emery's way of lampooning the prohibitionist ideology that holds sway in the White House. He proudly sucked on a cigar-sized doob, while 500 pot-puffing protestors gathered in front of a phalanx of Canadian cops.

Not surprisingly, U.S. authorities take a dim view of the in-your-face cannabis culture that thrives in Vancouver, where the DEA has set up shop to monitor local developments. A U.S. narcotics control emissary recently criticized Ottawa for being "soft on drugs" and threatened a slowdown in cross-border traffic if Canada resisted American demands. While neither the DEA nor Canadian justice officials will comment on pending cases, American authorities continue to pressure Canadian law enforcement agencies to send Boje and other pot fugitives back to the United States.

A large majority of U.S. citizens favor the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes and according to a 2003 Medscape poll, so do 75 percent of American doctors. Dr. Jerome Kassirer, editor-in-chief of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine , called federal policy on medical marijuana "misguided, heavy-handed and inhumane."

For years the DEA has habitually ignored scientific and medical data on marijuana, including a 1988 report by its own administrative law judge, Francis Young, who confounded expectations by concluding that cannabis "in its natural form is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man."

A potent symbol of cultural conflict, cannabis rarely gets a sober appraisal from U.S. lawmakers. Drug czar John Walters has referred to the war on drugs as "a conservative cultural revolution." This is also the assessment of Steve Kubby and other American "reefer refugees" who maintain that the war against pot has long been a driving force of the culture war in the United States. "Make no mistake," says Kubby, "this issue is no more about marijuana than the Boston Tea Party was about tea."

Martin A. Lee is the author of Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD -- The CIA, the Sixties and Beyond (Grove Press). He is co-founder of the media watch group FAIR.