Canada: Refugee Status For Criminals Part 1

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Mar 27, 2005
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No American Has Ever Been Granted Canadian Refugee Status Because of the War on Drugs, but the Times They May Be Changing.

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."

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