Canada and US in drug debate

A US woman seeks political asylum in Canada, claiming persecution in marijuana case

A US woman wanted in California for conspiring to sell marijuana is fighting extradition from Canada on the grounds that she is a political refugee - from the war on drugs.

Her belief in the medicinal value of marijuana makes her in effect a member of a persecuted group, her lawyer argues.

This case is more than an unprecedented legal gambit. It also illustrates the contradictory laws and enduring sensitivity of marijuana as a public issue in the United States and Canada.

It's been nearly three years since Golden State voters approved a new law allowing medicinal use of cannabis. But questions about how sick people are to be supplied with their newly legal medicine remain to be resolved, and US federal authorities remain adamant in their opposition to state laws such as California's Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act. Prosecutions for distribution of marijuana continue.

And so Renee Boje, arrested in 1997 in the Bel Air, Calif., home of Todd McCormick, a high-profile advocate of medicinal marijuana, has been charged with conspiracy to distribute the drug, an offense carrying a sentence of 10 years to life. She faces an extradition hearing Nov. 1 in Vancouver.

"She's caught in the cross-fire of the war on drugs," says Maury Mason, her spokesman, in Roberts Creek, British Columbia.

Political factor

A US official requesting anonymity calls the use of the term "political asylum" by Ms. Boje's advocates "an artificial way of casting the discussion," but acknowledges, "There's always a major political element in a drug case."

But Boje's lawyer, John Conroy, of Abbotsford, British Columbia, insists, "It's not a stretch to say that it's a political issue." The severity of the sentence she faces if convicted indicates an "unjust and oppressive" justice system, Mr. Conroy argues. He suggests that the charge she would face if the case were playing out in Canada would be "aiding and abetting cultivation" of the drug - with a maximum sentence of seven years.

Mr. Mason, a former media director for the environmental group Greenpeace, says the campaign on Boje's behalf has two purposes, "One, to get her off, and two, to send a message to the US: Take a look at your own drug policy."

But the Boje case is unfolding at a time when Canada is going through its own struggle over the issue of medical marijuana. Currently, those wishing to use the drug legally for medicinal purposes - to alleviate pain or control side effects from other drugs - must apply to the federal health minister in Ottawa. Getting permission has been widely deemed cumbersome and bureaucratic, a process in which he has broad, if not complete, discretion. This month 14 applications were approved - bringing the total of legal marijuana smokers to 16 across Canada.

But at the same time, federal lawyers have been in court in Toronto, seeking to overturn a provincial court's ruling allowing an individual diagnosed as epileptic to smoke marijuana legally to control what are described as life-threatening seizures. In 1997, an Ontario court gave Terry Parker permission to smoke marijuana free of prosecution. But Ottawa lawyers are arguing that this permission usurps federal authority; Mr. Parker should make application to the health minister like the others.

On both sides of the border, legal supply of the drug is an issue.

"People didn't pass Proposition 215 with the thought of sick people having to go downtown to a dark alley to buy their medicine," says Rand Martin, chief of staff for California State Sen. John Vasconcellos. The senator has introduced legislation to set up a registry of people with legal permission for medicinal marijuana. If the system is implemented, a police officer would be able to check on someone's marijuana status as easily as he could check on outstanding parking tickets.

Yet people allowed to use medicinal marijuana are often too ill to grow their own. And because marijuana is a plant and not a manufactured product like aspirin, there's not an obvious role for pharmaceutical companies to play, observes Eugene Oscapella, an Ottawa lawyer and a founding member of the Canadian Drug Policy Foundation.

But if restrictions on medicinal marijuana were relaxed as fully as advocates would like, marijuana could be as widely used, he suggests, as an over-the-counter painkiller.

Buyers' clubs

It is in this void that "buyers' clubs" have developed, such as the Compassion Club of Vancouver, a registered charity set up to supply seriously ill people with marijuana. In Canada these clubs have generally worked out a modus vivendi with the police.

In California, activists in such organizations have been prosecuted. Boje, a graphic artist, says she was working with Mr. McCormick to establish a buyers' club in southern California when she was arrested. She has insisted that because of the new law and because McCormick had prescriptions for marijuana, their activities were legal. Pretrial motions in McCormick's trial were to begin yesterday in California.

Conroy expects to lose the Nov. 1 hearing but to appeal to Canada's federal justice minister. Boje "is in fear of what will be done to her" if she goes to a US prison. Amnesty International released a report earlier this year about human rights violations against women in prison, which attracted widespread attention here. The levels of abuse reported are a reason to consider the American justice system "unjust and oppressive," according to Conroy.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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