Border-hopping to beat the rap

SUN JOURNAL

Flight: A California woman claims refugee status in Canada, seeking to avoid drug charges in the United States.

January 13, 2000|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Renee Boje is a minor character in a major California marijuana case -- "a very small fish," as she says.

Yet the 30-year-old free-lance artist has managed to create an international stir in her battle to avoid trial on U.S. drug charges. In essence, Boje claims she is among the thousands of refugees seeking protection in Canada from rogue governments and dictatorships.

She is a political victim, she says, of the U.S. war on drugs.

"The punishment does not fit the crime," she says. "I am only guilty of being too trusting and underestimating the power and determination of some very dark forces in my government."

Boje (pronounced Bo-zhay) once lived in Bel Air, Calif., at a mansion known as "the castle," where she sketched pictures of marijuana for a friend who was writing a book about how to grow the plants. He was cultivating more than 4,000 plants that he said were for medical purposes and research.

That leisurely life ended abruptly in July 1997, when federal drug agents raided the mansion. Federal indictments charged nine people with growing and then selling the plants to a cannabis buyer's club, which then dispensed the narcotic.

Boje and the others say they were growing marijuana legally under a 1996 California law permitting the drug to be used for medical purposes. Seven other states have passed similar "medical marijuana" measures. Supporters of those laws say marijuana helps alleviate pain and nausea.

Boje's friend, Todd McCormick, 29, and his chief backer, Peter McWilliams, 50, accepted a deal with prosecutors to plead guilty to conspiring to create a commercial marijuana-cultivation operation. McCormick, who has cancer, has agreed to a five-year prison term. McWilliams, who has AIDS, faces up to five years in prison.

The indictment against Boje accuses her of conspiring to grow and manufacture marijuana, charging that she was observed watering the plants and smoking marijuana. If convicted on all charges, she would face a minimum of 10 years in prison.

But before she could be indicted, Boje fled in late 1997 to British Columbia. The province is known as a haven for marijuana growers and users. One recent poll showed that 63 percent of its residents thought possession of marijuana should not be a criminal offense.

There, Boje lives in a two-story home within walking distance of a beach and forest. "It's got a balcony with a view of forest and lots of windows and a skylight for viewing the stars at night," she says.

For a time she drew pictures and grew cannabis, trying to relax after "the intensity of the U.S." But her marijuana-growing activity was again shattered by authorities -- Canadian police, this time. Last February she was arrested, and U.S. officials were alerted to her whereabouts. (Marijuana charges arising from her Canadian arrest were dropped yesterday, Boje says.)

Boje hired an attorney and began fighting extradition to the United States. She claims to be a refugee from political persecution, and says she is a victim of the conflict between California's voters, who passed the referendum approving the use of marijuana for medical purposes, and U.S. officials who continue to enforce federal prohibitions on the drug. She also says she will face inhumane conditions, including sexual molestation, in U.S. prisons.

So far, Boje has lost most of her court battles.

First, she was denied a chance to appear before a refugee review board because of the U.S. criminal charges pending against her.

Of the 62 Americans who were allowed to apply in Canada for refugee status in 1998, none was accepted. Overall, about 44 percent of the 30,000 applicants were granted the protection. Most of these came from countries that are either non-democratic or undergoing civil conflict, or both.

A Canadian judge is expected to rule soon on the U.S. request for Boje's extradition. If she loses that fight, she can appeal to the justice minister and then appeal through the court system to Canada's Supreme Court. The process could take almost two years.

John Conroy, her attorney, says that Boje has a good shot at winning because many Canadians believe that U.S. drug policy is unfair. If she had been charged in Canada with a similar offense and officials determined that the marijuana was intended for use as medicine, he says, she would likely get a fine.

"The American penalty is clearly disproportionate to what we think is proportionate up here," Conroy says.

Other legal experts doubt that she will win her court fight.

"She has some chance, but probably not a very good chance," says Julius Grey, a law professor at McGill University in Montreal.

A ruling in Boje's favor could harm U.S.-Canadian relations, legal scholars say, and Canadian judges might not want to risk upsetting their country's closest and largest neighbor.

A Canadian judge would be more likely to block an American extradition order, the scholars say, when an accused person faced a potential death sentence. Canadian law forbids capital punishment.

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