Seeking Refuge from the Drug War

It's a different war, but some things never change.

Forty years ago, Americans fled to Canada to avoid fighting in Vietnam. Today, American medical marijuana patients are following in their footsteps, claiming to be political refugees of the U.S. government's war on drugs.

"I'm a member of a class of society they're trying to oppress or wipe out completely," says Renee Boje, from her home in Vancouver, British Columbia. Boje is probably the most famous American fugitive in Canada. The U.S. is currently trying to extradite her to face charges for conspiracy to cultivate hundreds of cannabis plants at the Los Angeles home of Todd McCormick, a cancer patient and medical marijuana activist. If convicted, Boje, 32, faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years -- a penalty so severe that she's become the poster child for the increasing numbers of U.S. citizens heading north to take advantage of Canada's liberal pot laws. "There are hundreds of Americans here," she says, "because they're being persecuted by their own government."

Many of the refugees are quietly growing and using their own weed -- the Vancouver-based Compassion Club, one of a dozen operating across British Columbia, estimates that over 100 of its 2,000 clients are Americans. But others, like Boje, haven't kept such a low profile. Over the past couple of months, several prominent U.S. activists have fled to British Columbia, including Steve Kubby, the Libertarian Party's 1998 candidate for governor of California, and Ken Hayes, who operated the 6th Street Harm Reduction Center in San Francisco. Kubby, who has adrenal cancer, faces a 120-day jail term for drug possession, which he says would kill him. in February -- even though he was already in Canada -- Hayes was charged with conspiracy to grow more than 1,000 plants and could be sentenced to at least 10 years. Both Hayes and Kubby have formally claimed refugee status acccording to U.N. convention, arguing that they have a "well-founded fear of persecution" in the United States. Canadian immigration officials have found their claims to have sufficient merit to allow them and their families to remain in the country until a final hearing in a year.

"U.S. officials have violated the law and intentionally targeted the leaders of the medical marijuana movement by using conspiracy charges," says Kubby, from his home on B.C.'s Sunshine Coast-just before he's due to read the daily news on pot-tv.net, an internet TV channel. "I'm being threatened with a death sentence. How can anyone justify that and say it's not an attempt to persecute me?"

Public statements like this have already won the refugees plenty of attention from Canadian news media -- and American officials as well. "Providing sanctuary to some of these people who see Canada as an easy place to escape the long leash of U.S. law enforcement is dangerous," said Robert Maginnis, a White House drug policy advisor, in a recent interview on Canada's Global TV network. "I would hope that the Canadian government would see fit to send them back to the U.S. so they can face charges, because we have, just like you do, a sovereign right over our citizens to enforce the laws of our land."

The exodus is partly a result of the vast difference between how medical marijuana laws are applied in Canada and the U.S.. Although California voters in 1996 passed Proposition 215 creating a Compassionate Use Act, for the past two years, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has used federal law to raid and prosecute medical marijuana clubs across the state. In May last year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the DEA's actions, ruling that "marijuana has no medical benefits", and this June the U.S. government obtained an injunction shutting down the few remaining California clubs for good. The Canadian federal government, on the other hand, has granted permits to possess or grow marijuana to more than 800 Canadians who suffer from AIDS, cancer or multiple sclerosis. And Canadian courts, which are not bound by mandatory minimums, tend to be lenient on those who don't have permits. For example, last month the B.C. Supreme Court stayed charges against a Vancouver man caught with 96 plants because he has AIDS and hepatitis; a few days later the same court granted an "absolute discharge" (i.e. no jail, fine, or criminal record) to the director of a compassion club who pleaded guilty to possession of five pounds of marijuana.

Alex Stojicevic, the Vancouver lawyer representing Hayes, Kubby and several other American refugee claimants, says it's "nothing new" for U.S. citizens to flee to Canada to avoid drug charges. What's new is the accelerated crackdown on medical marijuana ever since the Bush administration took office. His clients' argument, he says, is that they're being persecuted for holding a political opinion shared by a majority of California voters, but not by the feds. "Since Mr. Ashcroft became attorney-general and Mr. Bush the president, the view is that things are going to get worse," says Stojicevic. "That's what's fueling this."

Stojicevic admits that many of his clients are not likely to win refugee status because Canadian courts have consistently held that "the United States is still a country where the rule of law applies, and the real forum for complaining about these things is there, not here." However, a few Americans might be allowed to stay for other reasons. Earlier this year, Renee Boje married a Canadian, and they now have a four-month-old son. Stojicevic also notes that Boje's case is unique. While the other Americans will simply be ordered to leave Canada if their claims of persecution fail, the final decision to extradite Boje is up to Canada's minister of justice. He may consider (according to Canadian law) it "unjust and oppressive" to send a young mother to 10 years in prison for watering some plants.

Unfortunately, the U.S. activists have made a difficult situation even harder for themselves. In April, after one of them showed reporters marijuana he was cultivating, neighbors complained and the Mounties arrested Kubby, Hayes and several others. (Hayes also says a DEA agent based in Vancouver tried to intimidate him into returning "voluntarily" to the U.S.) They were released only after Marc Emery, the leader of the B.C. Marijuana Party and the owner of pot-tv.net and a giant marijuana seed bank, put up $5,000 bail. If convicted of cultivation and possession charges, each of the Americans could be ordered to leave Canada before the final hearings of their refugee claims.

The refugees are unrepentant. "I don't want to go back to the United States," says Ken Hayes. "The people who are still there fighting are doing a noble thing ... but it's inevitable that wherever there's liberty, that's where people will seek to be."

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