Article: 20000301052

Title: Drug War Refugee

Drug War Refugee
HMH Publishing Co., Inc.
one woman's flight from injustice
Barry Brown

one woman's flight from injustice

One spring afternoon in 1998, Renee Boje arrived at a Canadian checkpoint just over the border from Bellingham, Washington. She had only $50 cash and a backpack filled with her belongings. The Canadian border guard asked her name, then typed it into a computer, which promptly produced an official record. It indicated that Boje had been accused of a crime in the U.S. but that the charges had been dropped. The computer didn't provide specifics, so the guard asked Boje what the crime had been. Murder? Armed robbery? Kidnapping?

Marijuana, Boje replied. The guard waved her through. Boje walked for a few minutes until she could no longer see the checkpoint, then turned cartwheels.

Boje had good reason to feel relieved, though her celebration would prove premature. As a fringe player in one of the most closely watched drug prosecutions in America, Boje would be fighting deportation within a year. As you read this, she may well be back in a U.S. jail.

Her saga began in July 1997, one year after California passed Proposition 215, a referendum allowing the use of marijuana for the treatment of pain or long-term illness. Federal agents raided the Bel Air home of cancer patient Todd McCormick, where they arrested McCormick, Boje and six others on the charge of conspiring to grow and sell marijuana. Writer Peter McWilliams was later arrested.

The DEA agents claim they saw Boje watering and moving some of the 4000 plants on the premises. Boje, an artist, says she had been hired to provide illustrations for a book McCormick and McWilliams were preparing on medicinal marijuana.

Boje spent 72 hours in a Los Angeles jail before charges were dropped. She then went to work raising money for McCormick's defense. When Boje's lawyer learned the government was planning to reinstate the charges against her, he advised her to leave the country---or face a possible sentence of ten years to life.

On learning of Boje's whereabouts, U.S. officials asked Canada to extradite her to face justice. Boje, in turn, asked Canada to consider her a political refugee, just as it might consider a refugee from Cuba or Iraq. Boje's support of medicinal marijuana places her in the middle of a war raging between federal prosecutors who reject such use and the states that have legalized the cultivation, possession and consumption of cannabis for sick people.

Within the borders of the U.S., the case is viewed as an interesting collision between states rights (seven states have legalized medicinal marijuana) and federal will (General Barry McCaffrey and Attorney General Janet Reno defend "congressional determination"---i.e., the lawmakers' right to draft draconian measures).

On November 5, 1999 federal judge George King ruled that the Bel Air defendants could not refer to Proposition 215, nor could they claim their actions were legal under state law. They couldn't mention the medical benefits of marijuana nor claim that McCormick's illness constitutes a "medical necessity." The accused had manufactured marijuana, pure and simple, and that was against federal law. Stripped of their only defense, McCormick and McWilliams agreed to a plea bargain.

In fighting extradition, Boje had planned to argue that U.S. prisons have become so brutal that placing her in one, even to await trial, constitutes punishment that is too harsh by Canadian standards. Boje told members of the press that she had been repeatedly strip-searched during her 72-hour incarceration. Her experience is certainly not unique. Amnesty International has documented the widespread abuse of women in U.S. prisons, "including male staff touching inmates' breasts and genitals when conducting searches, male staff watching inmates while they are naked, and instances of rape." Norway recently refused to extradite an American charged with smuggling hashish, citing "inhumane" conditions in U.S. prisons.

Boje also hoped Canadian authorities would respond to the patent injustice of the proposed sentence. Had she been charged in Canada solely with watering a marijuana plant, Boje's sentence likely would have been probation. However, had she been licensed by Canada to grow and use medicinal marijuana, or had she worked in the illegal but officially tolerated Compassion Club in Vancouver, she might simply have received a stern warning to be more discreet. U.S. agents, however, produced a charge of conspiracy to manufacture and sell. Under Canadian law, courts must deny refugee status if a similar charge in Canada carries a possible sentence of more than ten years in prison (which it does). Lawmakers to the north view conspiracy as an offense deserving of a maximum life sentence.

As of late December, a Canadian judge had yet to render a final ruling on the extradition request. For an update on Boje's case, visit thecompas

Charlie Powell