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June 18, 2005 - The Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)

'Drug War Refugee' Could Get 10 Years

By Andrew Duffy

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Justice Minister Irwin Cotler has ordered the extradition of a woman who faces trial in California for tending marijuana plants at the Cannabis Castle, a Bel Air mansion that served as one of the state's first medical marijuana grow-ops in the 1990s.

Renee Boje, 35, who has a Canadian husband and young son, surrendered herself yesterday to court officials in British Columbia. She was granted bail while pursuing judicial review of Mr. Cotler's decision. That process will postpone her extradition until at least the end of September.

The American citizen sought refugee status in Canada in 1998 following her arrest on drug trafficking charges -- charges she believes exaggerated her role in the medicinal marijuana project.

In B.C., Ms. Boje helped found a club that delivered medical marijuana to cancer and AIDS victims on the Sunshine Coast; she married Chris Bennett, manager of the POT-TV website, and gave birth to a son, Shiva, in 2002.

Ms. Boje's many defenders -- author Noam Chomsky, filmmaker Michael Moore and actor Woody Harrelson are among those who have written letters of support -- have cast her as a pawn in the misguided U.S. war against drugs.

Her lawyer, John Conroy, argued she was the victim of political persecution in the U.S. because of her views on medical marijuana. He also told Mr. Cotler that she would suffer cruel and unusual punishment if returned because of the harsh U.S. approach to marijuana offences and a prison system rife with violence.

Ms. Boje, he said, would face a minimum sentence of 10 years in prison if convicted for taking part in the medical marijuana project launched by two California cancer victims. In Canada, the same kind of offences draw a maximum sentence of two years in jail, Mr. Conroy said.

Mr. Cotler, however, rejected all of the arguments presented on behalf of Ms. Boje, including her contention that she smoked marijuana in keeping with her Gnostic faith.

"If Ms. Boje is not surrendered, Canada would be denying our extradition partner's treaty request and allowing Ms. Boje to escape trial," Mr. Cotler concluded in his 19-page decision made public yesterday.

In a telephone interview yesterday, Ms. Boje's husband, Chris Bennett, said the family was deeply disappointed by Mr. Cotler's "narrow" decision.

"It was pretty disheartening: the decision takes no account of human rights or her personal situation," he said. "This is a decision based purely on trade interests with the Americans," Mr. Bennett charged. "He (Mr. Cotler) has bought into a witch hunt to assure trade."

Mr. Cotler noted that since Ms. Boje does not have a criminal record, she will not be subject to the 10-year minimum sentence if convicted of the drug offences.

The justice minister also rejected the argument that Ms. Boje should be allowed to stay in Canada since her actions were legal in California at the time. In 1996, California had adopted the Compassionate Use Act, legislation that allowed those with their doctor's approval to grow marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Ms. Boje, a freelance artist, had been hired that same year to illustrate two books on medical marijuana being written by Peter McWilliams and Todd McCormick. The men had become advocates after using the drug to relieve the nausea that accompanied their cancer treatments.

Ms. Boje believed her involvement in their medical marijuana project was therefore legal.

But when federal drug authorities raided Mr. McCormick's Cannabis Castle in July 1997, more than 4,000 marijuana plants were removed. (Mr. Cotler noted the plants could produce about three kilograms of marijuana.)

Mr. McCormick and Mr. McWilliams argued that they needed that many plants to conduct cross-breeding experiments, but law enforcement officials insisted the operation greatly exceeded anything required for personal use.

The men eventually pleaded guilty to drug offences. Mr. McWilliams died before serving jail time.

Ms. Boje was charged with conspiracy to manufacture and distribute marijuana on the strength of evidence from a police surveillance team that said that she was observed watering and moving plants.

Mr. Cotler said Ms. Boje was wrong to believe her actions were sanctioned by the law since only those individuals with a medical recommendation for marijuana could be involved in its manufacture and use. "Even if Ms. Boje mistakenly believed that what she was doing was legal, mistake of law is not a defence under American or Canadian law," he wrote.

On her website, Ms. Boje says her case represents an important precedent for other "drug war refugees."

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