Fleeing from the Drug War

On July 29th, 1997, while leaving the home of her friend Todd McCormick, Renee Boje was stopped by two police officers. Handcuffed and read her rights, she was brought to a local fire station where 60 agents of the DEA, the IRS's criminal investigative unit, and the LA County Sheriff's Department waited in riot gear to raid her friend's Bel Air home. Renee had become the first arrest in the federal government's operation against a man that the local press would later dub "the Pot Prince of Bel Air."

While this may sound like just another chapter in the U.S. war on drugs, it is much more than that. In a move that could set an astounding new precedent, Renee, facing charges of conspiracy to cultivate and distribute marijuana, fled to Canada. Today while one of her supposed co-conspirators is locked in isolation awaiting appeal and another lies dead, denied the marijuana that allowed him to keep down his AIDS medication, Renee is waiting to hear whether she will be returned to the U.S. to face a 10 year mandatory minimum sentence or whether our neighbors to the north will grant her political asylum.

Renee's story begins in a popular Hollywood café/art gallery where she first met Todd McCormick. It was April 1997; Californians had just passed Proposition 215 legalizing medical marijuana and McCormick was sitting in the middle of the room smoking what Renee remembers as a "really big joint." Intrigued by the fact that he could be so bold, Renee introduced herself and the two began a conversation about medical marijuana.

McCormick is a long-time medical marijuana activist. By the age of ten, he had suffered 9 different bouts with bone cancer. The top five vertebrae of his neck are fused and he has one hip that is the size of a ten-year-old boy's. McCormick's mother began giving him marijuana, with a doctor's blessing, at the age of nine and he has used it ever since to manage the pain of his condition.

In 1995, McCormick opened the first San Diego cannabis buyer's club. In early 1997 his new project was a book entitled How to Grow Medical Marijuana. With a $200,000 advance from publisher and fellow activist Peter McWilliams, McCormick was conducting research for the book in his rented Bel Air mansion. The night that he met Renee, who had recently graduated with a fine arts degree from Loyola Marymount University, he asked her if she would be interested in doing some illustrations for his book. Renee agreed and thus began her relationship with the "Marijuana Mansion Man," a relationship that would end up with her in jail less than four months later.

When the Feds raided McCormick's home, it was the culmination of a whirlwind five-day investigation. For the next 72 hours, Renee was held at the Los Angeles Federal Prison for Women where she claims she was strip-searched fifteen times, sometimes under the leering gaze of male officers, all the while being denied access to legal council. When she finally was released, Renee was charged with possession, cultivation, intent to distribute, and conspiracy.

The press surrounding the case caused her to lose her job and for most of the next year, Renee says, "my phones were being tapped" and "there were men sitting outside my house." Even after all charges against her were temporarily dropped in October of 1997, she was still being followed by the Feds. The DEA was continuing to aggressively pursue its case against McCormick and Renee was a pawn in their game.

In May of 1998, nearly ten months after she was first arrested, Renee's attorney Kenneth Kahn called to tell her that he needed to see her urgently. In a meeting the next day, Kahn informed Renee that the charges against her were most likely going to be reinstated, and in a very professionally-risky move, he advised her to flee to Canada. After three days of meditation, Renee decided to take his advice. Telling her friends and family that she was taking a trip to pursue a photography project, she packed a bag, gave away the rest of her possessions, and headed for Vancouver.

Once in Canada, Renee traveled across the country, worked odd jobs to make a few dollars, and eventually ended up in Montreal where she learned through an anonymous e-mail tip that bounty hunters were hot on her trail. On July 23rd, 1998, the U.S. government had dropped the other shoe. In a raid on the offices of McWilliams' Prelude Press and three other locations throughout the Los Angeles area, the DEA arrested McWilliams and several others bringing the total number of people indicted in the case to nine. Renee's charges had been reinstated, just as her attorney had feared, and the Feds desperately wanted Renee back in custody.

Renee immediately dyed her hair and fled back across Canada. Arriving in Vancouver broke and exhausted, she turned to the only people she felt were likely to help her, members of Canada's medical marijuana community. Renee was given shelter in a home with a medical marijuana garden that supplied cannabis to the Vancouver Compassion Club. Unfortunately it didn't take long for her troubles to catch up with her.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police raided the house where Renee was staying on February 15th, 1999. Her outstanding warrants were discovered and she was quickly rushed off to the Supreme Court in Vancouver for a fast track extradition to the United States. In Canada, however, Renee was given access to legal council much more quickly than in the States. Luckily her lawyer, Alex Stojicevich, was able to convince a judge to hear her case before sending her back to the U.S. to face trial and an almost certain ten year sentence in Federal prison.

Renee used her temporary reprieve to retain a second lawyer named John Conroy who, as a founder of NORML Canada, was very interested in her case. Conroy helped Renee file for political asylum and agreed to represent her through this long, complicated process. On February 9th, 2000, British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Michael Catliff ruled that Renee must be returned to the United States. Conroy appealed the decision and now Renee's case sits with the Canadian Justice Minister, Anne McLellan, who has stated that she will not make a decision until June.

So what are Renee's chances of actually being granted political asylum? Upon first consideration, her chances seem along the lines of the old snowball in hell. After all, the United States is Canada's largest trading partner, and as such, the Canadian government is usually very reticent to thumb its nose at the U.S. Also, Renee has not managed to win any of the rounds of this drawn out fight. It looks as if the law is against her.

However, there are a few points that weigh heavily in Renee's favor. Firstly, Anne McLellan is taking an awfully long time in rendering her decision. Initially she said that she would have a decision by April 17, 2000. In the thirteen months since her first deadline, Minister McLellan has been deluged with briefs and letters in support of Renee. Amnesty International, NORML, and many other organizations have filed briefs on her behalf. Actor and marijuana activist Woody Harrelson wrote to McLellan asking her to "please show compassion for a wonderful young lady ... who has never been violent or hurt anyone, who simply believed that what was going on in that house in Bell Air in 1997 was perfectly legal."

"I beg you to give Renee a chance," Harrelson wrote, "to let her remain in a country that is genuinely free, and not to allow a bullying, all powerful government, that has lost all connection to it's people (and which I am ashamed to call my own) to take ten years of her young life away from her.

"Please, please, show some compassion toward Renee and don't allow her to become another statistic in a money-making, hypocritical war against good citizens."

The second point in Renee's favor is that Canada has much more liberal laws regarding marijuana use than does the United States. Last April the Canadian Health Ministry, known as Health Canada, went so far as to issue regulations that will make Canada the first nation in the world to create a government regulated system for medical marijuana. Health Minister Allan Rock said, "Canada is acting compassionately by allowing people who are suffering from grave and debilitating illnesses to have access to marijuana for medical purposes."

Add to this the fact that Renee's lawyer John Conroy will be before the Canadian Supreme Court next year arguing cases from Ontario and British Columbia challenging the constitutionality of laws prohibiting recreational use of marijuana. You might begin to get the impression that Renee might have a chance after all.

Lastly, not to be forgotten, is the fact that while it may not do so very often, Canada does have a history of occasionally defying the United States. One such occasion, of course, was Canada's granting of political asylum to the Vietnam War era draft dodgers.

So what is keeping Renee from being granted her asylum? First of all, the government's claim that McCormick's operation was part of a larger conspiracy is supported by evidence that McWilliams seems to have been funding the growing of marijuana in three other locations besides McCormick's Bel Air home. Marijuana plants were found in McWilliams' Laurel Canyon home as well as two houses in Chino and Van Nuys connected to a man named Scott Hass. In one of the houses overseen by Hass, the police found equipment for the manufacture of hashish, but Hass defends himself by saying that he was simply experimenting with different ways to deliver medical marijuana.

While McCormick and Hass claim to never have met each other and in fact to both have had no knowledge of the other, this is not legally necessary to prove a criminal conspiracy. By law, conspirators don't need to actually know each other, they merely have to know that they are part of a larger operation. But was there a larger operation?

Scott Imler, president of the LA Cannabis Buyers' Club (an organization of which McWilliams was a member), seems to think so. He claims that McWilliams approached him wanting "to enter into a contract with [the Buyers' Club] for the sale of marijuana at $4,800 per pound." Imler and other Club workers also claim that McWilliams said that he wanted to become "the Bill Gates of Medical Marijuana." McWilliams denied having suggested any sale, and said of the Bill Gates quote that he was simply joking. Both Renee and McWilliams' Attorney have indicated a belief that Imler may have been the one to tip off the Feds to McCormick's growing operation.

The government's case is not without its own inconsistencies, however. For instance, the government's claim that McCormick was growing 4,116 plants with a street value in excess of $20 million dollars is a bit of an exaggeration. In fact, the majority of the plants that the Feds found in McCormick's home were dormant cuttings, planted nearly one hundred apiece in two foot by one foot boxes -- hardly mature 'plants'. This is perfectly consistent with McCormick's claim that he was doing crossbreeding experiments to determine which strain of cannabis produced the most effective cannabinoid for the treating of a particular medical symptom. Additionally, the government has failed to adequately address why, if in fact he was involved in a criminal conspiracy, was McCormick so open about his actions? Many of his plants were on his front porch, easily visible from the street in a neighborhood that boasts Elizabeth Taylor and President Reagan as residents.

In the end it is important to keep everything in this case in perspective. For one, the most damning evidence that the government claims to have against Renee is a video on which she is seen watering and moving McCormick's plants for a little over an hour. Even supposing that McCormick (who according to California State law had a legal right to grow marijuana) was in fact breaking the law, does Renee's watering of his plants merit a ten-year sentence in Federal prison?

Two, what real harm were these people doing? Even if they were planning to sell the marijuana to California buyers' clubs, should this be a crime? The United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the Oakland Buyer's Club's right to operate stating that a patient's right to health care superceded the Federal government's need to regulate the drug trade.

And lastly, we need to look at the behavior of our Federal government.

The Federal government refuses to recognize the validity of laws duly voted into being by the citizens of the state of California and many other states as well.

The Federal government has charged a group of medical marijuana activists with a variety of crimes involving marijuana and they deny them the right to mention medical necessity as a defense, claiming it would "serve only to confuse and mislead the jury."

The Federal government has locked away Todd McCormick, a man doing legitimate medical research on the premise that he might be intending to sell the by-product of his research to an organization that is legally allowed to distribute this product. The Feds deny him his chosen, doctor-prescribed medicine, a medicine that he has been taking for over 20 years. And when a drug test shows that he may have been continuing to take that medicine while in jail waiting appeal, they confine him to isolation.

The Federal government convicted Peter McWilliams, a man fighting a battle with cancer and AIDS, of being a drug kingpin for his financing of medical marijuana research. The Feds deny him the use of doctor prescribed marijuana as a means of keeping down his AIDS medication, and as a result, he dies, choking on his own vomit while awaiting sentencing.

The Federal government, in 1997 prosecuted more people for drug offenses not related to trafficking than it did for murder, rape, and all other sexual offenses combined. There is a marijuana arrest every 40 seconds in the U.S. and one in six people in prison are there for marijuana related charges. The U.S. spends $17 million dollars a day building more prisons, and yet still there is not enough room. Rapists and murders are paroled to make room for the flood of incoming drug offenders.

At a time when, by some estimates, it costs the federal government over $150,000 a year to lock up a prisoner, why are we putting so many drug offenders behind bars? In a nation in which 15,289 murders were reported in 1997; where there is an average of 2,147 bombings or attempted bombings a year; where over 60 percent of the population can expect to be raped or physically assaulted in their lifetime, does our country's war on drugs make sense? Renee Boje certainly doesn't think so. Hopefully, her case can convince the Canadian government as well.

If you want to help Renee you can write letters to Minister McLellan in support of her petition. See www.Reneeboje.com for more information.

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