Cannabis News


U.S. Drug War's Target: A New Mom

Source: Vancouver Sun (CN BC)
Author: Andrew Struthers, Special to the Sun 
Published: Saturday, December 21, 2002
Copyright: 2002 The Vancouver Sun
Contact: [email protected]

Here's how Hollywood-raised Renee Boje became the pot madonna.

Gorgeous, guileless and naturally blissed out, Vancouver's Renee Boje, 32, is the perfect poster girl for pot activists; she's also a new mother and martyr for a cause she never dreamed she'd represent, a marijuana madonna with everyone from Noam Chomsky to Woody Harrelson writing letters on her behalf.

Boje lies back on the couch, her baby Shiva curled against her breast. Images of Ganesh and Shakti smile down from the walls. Outside, the traffic on Commercial Drive has almost faded. Across the room Shiva's father, author Chris Bennet, talks quietly about ancient Egypt. 

Shiva looks like any 10-month-old who has crashed at the end of a long day: utterly at peace. However, he slumbers in the eye of a hurricane. His mother is a flashpoint in America's billion-dollar war on drugs. 

If Boje is the marijuana movement's perfect poster girl, as a sacrificial lamb for the war on drugs, she's better than perfect. She's a living example of how reefer madness can suck the girl next door into a maelstrom of cops, lawyers, strip searches and prison bars. 

The strategists in the war on drugs are manoeuvring to extradite his wife to the U.S., where she faces charges of marijuana trafficking. 

The story of Boje, and her role as it-girl for the cannabis culture, began innocently enough. Boje, who was raised in Hollywood, was 23 before she even tried marijuana. She liked it. In 1996, when California tabled the controversial Proposition 215, a state initiative that would allow certain sick people to use marijuana as medicine, she joined the majority that voted yes. The proposition passed, and medical marijuana became legal in California. 

The following year she saw a man casually puffing on a joint in a Hollywood coffee shop. 

"I asked him how he could be so bold," she says, stretching out on the sofa like a cat.

Todd McCormick, a cancer sufferer, explained that his illness had forced him to become an expert on medical uses of marijuana, and now, thanks to Proposition 215, he had a licence to toke. McCormick, a tiny man in a wheelchair whose spine was severed in two places, also told her he had just received a $100,000 advance from publisher Peter McWilliams to write a book on medical marijuana.

Boje, who had just finished art school, was intrigued, and their conversation continued. McCormick soon took her on to illustrate the book. 

Over the next few months, Boje spent a good deal of time at McCormick's Bel Air mansion, dubbed the cannabis castle"(it had a moat, along with 4,000 pot plants), making sketches for the book. One night on her way home she was snared by officers from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. They claimed they had been watching her through binoculars as she lined the bridge across the cannabis castle's moat with pot plants and watered them. 

Although she had nothing in her possession, over the next 72 hours she was strip-searched 15 times while two cops leered at her and told her what they were going to do with her once they put her "inside for good." When she mentioned Proposition 215, they laughed and told her that growing medical marijuana might be legal under California state law, but under federal law it was no different from peddling smack. The DEA was a federal agency, and the legal principle of supremacy meant that in a battle between state and federal law, the latter would win. 

What the feds wanted was for Boje to testify against McCormick and and his publisherPeter McWilliams, an AIDS sufferer who used marijuana to fight the nausea his treatment caused him. Both had been busted that same night and charged with trafficking. Four thousand plants. That's a lot of grass for one tiny guy in a wheelchair and his AIDS-stricken pal. 

Boje refused. The charges against her were dropped, she was released, and the DEA started tailing her so they could build a better case against her. 

In 1998, her lawyer told her there was a 99-per-cent chance the charges would be reinstated. The feds were determined to bring down Proposition 215, and wanted the case against McCormick and McWilliams to be iron-clad. She was a pawn in the DEA's gambit. Unless she testified against her friends, she faced 10 years to life under federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws. 

"He [Boje's lawyer] said if I was his daughter, he'd tell me to go to Canada. The only thing I knew about Canada was the Kids in the Hall," she says. That, and that B.C. was pretty laid-back about marijuana.

Knowing nothing about the vast area north of the 49th parallel, she agonized between life in Canada and imprisonment. However, that same year, in her home state of California, eight prison guards had been indicted for "pitting inmates against each other in gladiator-style fights." The conflicts were broken up by firing on the inmates with rifles. Seven were killed. According to Amnesty International, which had condemned conditions in U.S. jails, female prisoners were "subjected to serious sexual abuse, including rape and being sold as 'sex slaves' to male inmates." They were also routinely shackled to their beds while giving birth. 

Boje fled that spring. She couldn't even tell her family she might never see them again because, in the eyes of the DEA, that would make them guilty of abetting a fugitive.

At the border the dropped marijuana charges came up on the computer, but the Canadian border guard waved her in. A 20-something who'd been caught smoking pot? Big deal. 

She found her way to the Sunshine Coast, where a friend of a friend lived. Life in Roberts Creek was good. She soon founded the local Compassion Club, and started administering medical marijuana to help ease the suffering of terminally ill patients and AIDS victims. 

Bad move. She got busted in a police raid -- medical marijuana is still technically illegal in Canada -- and suddenly the DEA had her back in its crosshairs. Extradition loomed.

Terrified of what awaited her in the States, she applied for refugee status. When word of her plight got around, she became the cause célèbre of the marijuana legalization movement.

Marc Emery, founder of Hemp BC, publisher of Cannabis Culture, and the man the National Post called "Canada's pot millionaire," kicked in for her legal defence and took her to the studios of his newest enterprise, a fledgling Internet media outlet called, of course, Pot Radio.

When she walked into the station, Chris Bennet was on the air from Vancouver Island, talking about marijuana and the Bible. The host asked Boje to join in, and so she and Bennet exchanged their first hellos in cyberspace.

Boje was moving even deeper toward the epicentre of B.C.'s marijuana subculture. 

It was 1999, and Bennet still lived in Ucluelet. We were friends then -- still are. 

Bennet, raised by loggers in Ukee, was like some crazy funhouse mirror image of me. We both surfed, both drew, both lived on converted fish boats, and both had published books. And we both smoked a lot of pot. There was only one thing we disagreed on: Chris thought the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden was a giant pot plant, and I didn't. 

In 1999 Chris wrote a book on this theme, called Sex, Drugs, Violence and the Bible. It was full of references to Old Testament patriarchs anointing themselves with cane oil, which Chris argued was a tincture of cannabis. Highly entertaining. But when he asked me to illustrate the book I begged off. 

I had just quit smoking pot, which for me had become the TV of drugs. Every night I would turn on, tune in, and drop off. 

Remember those fairy rings in Scottish folklore? You get drawn in by the wild music, dance round and round all night, and when you wake up in the morning 10 years have passed and you're old. That's exactly what a decade of smoking pot in Tofino feels like once you sober up. 

But I relented, and perhaps because my heart wasn't in it, the cover painting took forever. 

By the time I'd finished, Bennet had moved to Vancouver to work for Pot TV, another Emery enterprise. 

Bennet had his own show, The Burning Shiva Hour, in which he rambled entertainingly about his favourite subjects: marijuana and the Bible and anointing and cane oil. There was also a show called The Healing Herb, which broadcast updates on the fight for legalizing medical marijuana, featuring Boje. 

When I called Chris to see if he liked the painting he told me about Renee -- he was madly in love with her. Unfortunately, the U.S. justice department had its own plans for her. 

It's after midnight. Chris, Renee and Shiva are curled up on a giant bed in the next room, and I drift on the couch under the dim spines of books: Joseph Campbell. Carl Jung. Rabelais. Next morning, it's Gnostics for breakfast. 

Apart from the flow of references to arcane texts, life in the Boje/Bennet household is pretty standard domestic stuff. At 10 a.m. Chris leaves for work -- he's now the manager of Pot TV. Boje plunks Shiva in a device that allows him to trundle around the house like a little tank while she waters the plants. Not pot plants. Just plants. 

As she waters, I ask if she would return to the States if the charges were miraculously dropped. She shakes her head. 

"I had no idea what Canada was like, how free everyone is. I think they keep it secret down there. Even getting arrested here is so different. I never want to go back." 

Despite the threat of extradition, life in B.C. is good. Emery has thus far kicked in about a hundred thousand for her legal defence, and, like a good immigrant, Boje is using her entrepreneurial spirit to plan her own business venture. 

Last December, anointed with cane oil and painted with pagan fertility symbols, she and Chris exchanged vows at the altar. This spring Shiva arrived. 

Shortly after Shiva's arrival, Boje's lawyers filed a further appeal to the justice minister, who had agreed to hear Boje's claim for refugee status, citing Boje's marriage to a Canadian and the birth of her son. Her refugee claim is based on the argument that conditions in U.S. prisons are inhumane, and the sentence Boje might face extraordinary.

Back in California, McCormick and McWilliams, both too sick to flee, had ended up in federal court, where neither was allowed to mention Proposition 215, medical marijuana or even their own illnesses. 

Stripped of any defence, both pleaded guilty to trafficking in exchange for the dropping of some charges. McCormick got five years, McWilliams was released on bail pending sentence. One of the conditions of McWilliams' bail was a weekly test for THC, which meant he was unable to smoke the marijuana that had kept him from throwing up his AIDS drug cocktail. A few months later he choked to death on his own vomit. 

Shortly after the sentencing of McCormick and McWilliams, Bennet and Boje were interviewed by Global TV. When they watched the footage it was followed by an interview with U.S. "drug czar" John Walters' right hand man, Colonel Robert Maginnis. Maginnis singled Boje out, saying they were coming to get her. He planned to make an example of her case, and extradite her by hook or by crook. 

"It was very upsetting to realize the drug czar knew me by name," she says, as Shiva bashes his walker into the door jamb, skids off the rug on to the hardwood floor and thunders down the hall. 

It's ironic that while Canada's marijuana laws seem to be loosening -- just last week Federal Justice Minister Martin Cauchon recommended decriminalization of pot possession under 30 grams -- Boje's foes in the U.S. are winding up tighter and tighter.

This little BC family is up against their own axis of evil formed by John Ashcroft, President George Bush, and the new head of the US office of national Drug Control Policy, John Walters -- three guys who take their jobs very seriously.

Ashcroft gained notoriety recently when he decided it was "curtains for Justice" -- literally. He spent $12,000 on drapery to cover a statue of Justice in Washington that had one breast bared. The son of a fundamentalist preacher, Ashcroft admits in his book Lessons From A Father To A Son, that he anointed himself with oil before taking office as a Senator (he couldn't find cane oil so he used Crisco). 

Walters is a lifelong Washington bureaucrat who once stated in the Weekly Standard that the notion that young black men are unjustly punished by America's criminal justice system is one of "the great urban myths of our time." (This, despite the fact that because US felons are stripped of their democratic rights, even after release from prison, fully 15 per cent of young black men in Kentucky and Virginia can't vote.)

And Bush? Well, when a patron in a bar near Sioux Falls, South Dakota, proposed setting fire to the President to see if God would address the country "through a burning Bush," he got a three-month prison sentence. 

Now Canada must decide whether or not to surrender Boje to a country and justice system run by this trio. 

Her defence is twofold: first, that if repatriated she would face inhumane treatment because the prisons there are so bad, and second, that her sentence is so wildly different from what it would be in Canada that it negates any extradition agreement. 

Even her own lawyer calls the gambit a "long shot." If Boje is allowed to stay, worries are that it will set a precedent and trigger an influx of criminal Americans. But Boje's only real transgression is her stalwart character: she steadfastly refused to rat on her friends. 

There is already an international precedent in a similar case. In 1999 the high court of Norway unanimously refused to extradite Henry Hendriksen to the United States because they found conditions in American jails inhumane. No mere friend of pot smokers, or alleged rearranger of plants, Hendriksen stood accused of smuggling 50 tons of hashish into Vermont. But that's not the point. Norway's high court sees no reason for him to suffer the conditions in American prisons. 

Do we want to be more like Norway, or more like America? There are some issues where the States seems not only like a different country, but a different planet. Jails and marijuana are at the top of the list. 

America's prison population was steady from 1925 until 1973, averaging around one convict per thousand citizens. Since then it has mushroomed to seven per thousand, the highest rate on the planet, just ahead of Russia. The San Jose Mercury News recently lamented that "Our jails and prisons have become the 51st state, with a greater combined population than Alaska, North Dakota and South Dakota." 

Since 1980 the percentage of drug-related sentences has grown by a factor of ten, and the number of women in prison for drug offences by over 900 per cent. The majority of these drug offences involve marijuana. 

Over this same period, Canada has become progressively more lenient in its attitude towards marijuana, despite pressure from the Whitehouse. 

So now the War on Drugs seems to have permutated into a war between Canada and the US, at least metaphorically. 

It's hard to avoid war metaphors. They have their own gravity. Notice how easily we slipped into this one. 

The whole trick to a war metaphor is to see your side's faults in others. Earlier I painted Bush, Ashcroft and Walters as paranoid, breast-phobic, Crisco-anointing Three Stooges. 

Here in Canada, we sometimes seem not so far ahead. When Evan Wade Brown pied Jean Chretien in the face, he got 30 days in jail, before appealing. A painting of a naked female was recently removed from the legislature, and when it comes to anointing with oil, Chris Bennet literally wrote the book.

The whole trick to ending a war metaphor is to find some middle ground. Pax. Okay, so Americans get a little over-excited when it comes to pot. Big deal. Like most Canadians, I'd like to see pot decriminalized, but I'm leery about legalization. Such freedoms only work for adults. When you're still wet behind the ears, pot is like fire. It makes a good servant and a lousy, paranoid, couch-potato master. 

Ultimately I'd like to cut the government out of the loop when it comes to what I put in my body, but it will take time. 

Last week US drug czar John Walters travelled all the way to Vancouver, to within a few kilometres of Boje's home, to address Canada's recent "softening" on the marijuana issue. Seemed like a nice guy. He reminisced about taking a degree in Toronto, but he also seems to regard the True North as a giant grow-op fronted by the longest undefended border in the world. 

I understand his concern. It's already impossible for America to keep Canadian bud out of their free market. And they can't resort to trade tariffs on this product.

When asked point blank how he felt about the neighbours passing such libertine drug laws, Walters said we could pass any laws we wanted. "Canada," he reminded us, "is a sovereign nation.

Of course it's not Canada that needs reminding.

Rain falls, then darkness. We sit in a booth at the Buddhist Vegetarian restaurant. Shiva makes contact with the baby in the next booth and they play ping-pong with gurgles and coos. Renee orders a huge plate of tofu in black bean sauce. 

I say, "We have a rule in Canada: 'Never eat anything bigger than your head.'" 

Boje giggles. "I'm breast feeding, I have to eat constantly." 

She looks like such a BC hippie chick, it's hard to believe she's a pawn in the DEA's billion-dollar game. Of course, when a pawn gets to the back of the board it is transformed into a queen. That always means trouble in chess. What will she do if Cauchon surrenders her in court? 

"I don't like to think about that, but I doubt if they'll let me go home with Chris and Shiva and get my things." 

I'm thinking the same thing: she'll be hustled out the back door in shackles. Right now she has a six-month reprieve. By the time her case comes up again, possessing marijuana will probably be a summary convictions offence, not a crime. The court will have to decide if she should spend her life in a place that falls well below Amnesty International's atrocity bar for an offence that our government deems on par with a parking ticket.

When the decision is made, we'll find out whether or not, as John Walters keeps insisting, Canada is a sovereign nation.

Andrew Struthers last wrote for Mix on Queen Elizabeth.

Profile of Renee Boje. Interview with Renee Boje.

Related Article & Web Sites:


Renee Boje

Todd McCormick

Peter McWilliams Memorial Page

Medical Marijuana Users Take Refuge in Canada

CannabisNews Medical Marijuana Archives


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