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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
Boje was moving even deeper toward the epicentre of B.C.'s marijuana
It was 1999, and Bennet still lived in Ucluelet. We were friends then --
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
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,
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
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
Last December, anointed with cane oil and painted with pagan fertility
symbols, she and Chris exchanged vows at the altar. This spring Shiva
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
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
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
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:
Peter McWilliams Memorial Page
Medical Marijuana Users Take Refuge in Canada
CannabisNews Medical Marijuana Archives