|Drug Queenpin or Innocent Victim?|
|by David France|
|Glamour Magazine, December 1999|
When Illustrator Renee Boje Naively Agreed To Help A Friend Prepare A Book About Medical Marijuana, She Never Dreamed She's Become A Fugitive. Glamour Caught Up With Her In Canada To Find Out Why She's Facing And Fighting A 10-Year-To Life Sentence.
Nearly two years have passed since Renee Boje kissed her kitten, Yoda-the-Zen-Master, good-bye and told her friends and family a lie that she was walking away from her life as a Los Angeles based freelance illustrator to embark on a mystical journey to find herself. "I didn't want to let them know that I was going to leave the country," says the 30-year-old redhead, a shy beauty who wears a dusting of glitter around her spirited eyes. "I didn't want to endanger anyone."
Nobody suspected a thing. "If you know Renee, she's a unique spirit," Jason Boje, 23, says about his sister. "It wasn't weird to me that she wanted to travel around."
But the truth was beyond weird. She was on the run from federal drug authorities, and to tell her loved ones that she was heading to Canada could have put them in an awkward position if U.S. Marshals came questioning.
This spring, they found her anyway. Now, in a test case that has gained international attention, Boje finds herself at the center of a bitter, high-profile legal feud that pits the state of California against the U.S. Government over the legality of smoking pot for medicinal purposes. She has been charged with growing and possessing marijuana with the intent to distribute it and she faces a possible prison term of l0 years to life as a medical-marijuana queen pin. But Boje contends she was just helping a friend illustrate a book called How to Grow Medical Marijuana and hanging out at his Los Angeles house, where, after the passage of a new California law, he was growing pot legally, he believed for his own medicinal use.
Federal authorities are demanding that Canada return Boje to California so that she can stand trial, and have begun extradition proceedings against her. "I thought that his growing marijuana was all perfectly legal," Boje says one August day during an exclusive Glamour interview at the isolated house she calls Zen Central, tucked in the woods on the coast of British Columbia. "I can't even think about serving time."
Citing California's Proposition 215 (also known as the Compassionate Use Act of 1996), which decriminalizes the use of pot for some sick people a law powerfully opposed by Washington - Boje is seeking political asylum in Canada, claiming she's being persecuted in the United States for her belief in the medicinal value of marijuana. She remains free in Canada until her case is resolved. But it's a lose-lose situation for her: If she wins asylum she'll avoid prison, but can never again set foot on U.S. soil. A failed asylum bid means extradition to the U.S. and prosecution as a drug dealer.
Quite by accident, Boje has become the central icon in this roiling battle. If Canada establishes a precedent by allowing her to stay, it will grant a moral victory to the growing ranks of Americans who feel marijuana should be legal nationwide by prescription to the legions of people from anorexics to cancer and AIDS patients whose suffering, some studies say, could be relieved as a result.
"I do think she's doing the right thing," says her mother, Margaret Struthers Boje, a registered nurse in Staten Island, New York. "She is putting her life on the line for medical marijuana. I'm very proud of my daughter... I love her so much."
Renee Boje sees her plight less heroically. For her, it's a profoundly personal struggle to remain free. "Sometimes I'm scared," she admits. "It was hard at the beginning, for sure. I didn't quite know what was going to happen to me when I ran. I just thought to myself: Freedom and the rest of the world or a possible 10 years to life in a U.S. prison?" She manages a guileless smile. "So I said, 'Wait a minute, the rest of the world sounds really good.'"
Evil Drug or Good Medicine?
Boje, who grew up in Culver City, California, studied art at Loyola Marymount, a nearby Catholic college. After that, she lived a bohemian life in Los Angeles, finding piecemeal work as an illustrator and interior designer. Boje is offbeat, arty, a modern-day hippie. But while she has become a heroine to those who oppose the heavy-handed methods of America's war on drugs, she's an unlikely standard-bearer. She rarely drinks and says she has only once tried anything harder than pot. She says she became an infrequent marijuana smoker only after the onset of her legal problems caused her migraines and anxiety attacks. "With the full force of the government being after me, it definitely can get scary. I use pot for that," she admits.
The seeds of her troubles were planted in November 1996, when she joined the 56 percent of California voters who approved Proposition 215, the statewide referendum that exempts from prosecution anyone who possesses and cultivates marijuana with a doctor's written or oral recommendation. It also allows others to act as "caregivers," legal growers and suppliers of the drug to qualified patients.
Since the California law was passed, similar measures have won voter approval in Alabama, Arkansas, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and the District of Columbia, and as Glamour went to press, an independent poll showed a compassionate-use bill would likely become law in Maine in November. In addition, 70 percent of Americans feel that if marijuana helps the seriously ill, it should be legal for them to use, according to an ABC News poll. Meanwhile, the Institute of Medicine (IOM), Congress' research arm, released a report confirming pot's medicinal benefits. "Scientific data indicate the potential therapeutic value of cannabinoid drugs (in marijuana)...for pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting and appetite stimulation," the report said.
Boje says what motivated her vote was a simple sense of compassion. "If this herb can help people," she says, "then it doesn't make any sense to keep it from them."
Despite mounting public support, Washington's hard-line position remains unchanged. The drug is still banned under federal law and therefore technically illegal even in the so-called medical -marijuana states. Attorney General Janet Reno has made it clear that the federal prohibition of marijuana will not be altered just because voters apparently want doctors to be able to prescribe it, says Nicholas Gess, the associate deputy attorney general for drug issues. "The notion that you decide guilt or innocence at the polls, that's anathema to us, I'll be blunt," he says.
Behind Washington's tough stance is the White House's top drug -policy official, Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, who has called the referendum movement "a Cheech and Chong show." In his first in- depth interview since the IOM report was released, he tells Glamour that he'll never approve the use of smoked marijuana. Instead, if it proves medically sound in clinical trials, he says he favors distilling marijuana's therapeutic compounds into pills, inhalants or suppositories. "I normally tell that to the guys in the audience," he laughs, "because they can't really imagine a Saturday-night suppository party. That kind of takes some of the thrill away."
Inside the Pot Mansion
In March 1997, shortly after the passage of Proposition 215, Boje was out with friends at Hollywood's Galaxy Gallery, an upscale art cafe, when she met one of the bill's best-known proponents, Todd McCormick, a charismatic 29-year-old activist and writer, He was openly smoking pot. "I went over and said, 'You're pretty brave, sitting here and smoking a joint out in public,' and he said, 'Well, it's legal for medicinal purposes here in California.' I went, 'Right on.'"
McCormick was the first intended beneficiary of Proposition 215 Boje had ever met. Two doctors had given him letters recommending pot to combat the extreme pain that comes from a rare cancer-like disease he suffers from, Hisriocytosis-X.
McCormick told Boje that he was beginning a homegrown project to create hybrid pot plants, on the theory that different cannabis strains are more effective than others for different types of illnesses. He said that he intended to publish his research in a book, How to Grow Medical Marijuana, and asked Boje to be his illustrator for $15 an hour. Touched by his story, she agreed.
That was to be the extent of her involvement. "She did art for me," McCormick says over the telephone. Peter McWilliams, the publisher and president of Prelude Press, which had paid more than $100,000 in advance for the book, agrees that she was just another face around the house.
As Boje soon found out, McCormick's was no ordinary home office. He had plunged his advance into renting a 12,000square-foot mansion in posh Bel Air. The place had moats, jutting turrets and about 20 cavernous rooms, all filled with McCormick's verdant marijuana farm a staggering 4,116 plants. Celebrity pals like Larry Flynt and Woody Harrelson dropped in to visit. "It was a magical place," Boje recalls, "There were these cobblestone bridges and a sea of marijuana." She worked every day for three months at the house, making sketches.
Arrested and Humiliated
An unidentified informant blew the whistle in July, 1997, and the Drug Enforcement Agency, seemingly eager to bring a test case against the referendum, moved quickly. For two days late in the month, two Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies and a local DEA agent peered through curtainless windows from across the street. In their affidavits, they say they witnessed Boje and another young woman, Aleksandra Evanguelidi, "moving trays of plants around a patio area," watering plants, studying a cannabis-related Internet site on a large-screen TV and, finally, smoking from a bong with McCormick.
Neither Evanguelidi nor her attorney would comment for this article, but McCormick says he hired Evanguelidi to be his housekeeper and nothing more. He denies that either she or Boje smoked pot or watered the plants.
In any case, on the afternoon of July 29, the women were stopped by a patrol car as they drove away from the house, arrested on suspicion of "possession with intent to deliver," handcuffed and read their rights. They were astounded to learn that the entire household was about to be raided. "I was really scared," Boje recalls. "I remember arguing with the officers, saying, 'What you're doing is wrong! This is legal in California. He has a license to grow he's got two prescriptions from doctors. Proposition 215 passed!' They said, 'What's Proposition 215? What are you talking about? Marijuana’s not legal'"
After the women were taken into custody, Boje says she was held for 72 hours and subjected to strip searches by female guards a shocking 15 times. At least twice, she says, this happened in a windowed room surrounded by male witnesses. "It was humiliating," Boje says quietly. (A public affairs officer with the LA.P.D. refused to comment on the arrest.)
The Charges Are Dropped, but the Threat Remains
After their three-day ordeal, Boje and Evanguelidi were released without being charged. McCormick, however, was held on $500,000 bail, which his friend Woody Harrelson soon posted. Several other McCormick acquaintances were charged as part of a conspiracy to possess, grow and distribute a staggering $20 million worth of marijuana. Eventually, even the book publisher, Peter McWilliams, a well-known fixture in Los Angeles literary circles, was brought into custody. The indictment characterized him as the group's ringleader and financier "the Bill Gates of medical marijuana" because of the $100,000 he had advanced to McCormick for his book project.
Expecting that the charges would be brought against the women, and that they would be convicted despite their clearly minor roles, famed Los Angeles defense attorney Kenny Kahn a fiend of Boje's and Evanguelidi's told them, "If you were my daughters, I'd tell you to get the hell away from here, leave the country."
The women came to their anguished decision in a few days. "It was so hard," Boje says. "I ended up giving all my things away because I knew inside of me that I wasn't going to be able to go back.”
Boje packed only a sleeping bag and a few clothes in her backpack along with a collection of poems she had written over the years. She and Evanguelidi hitchhiked north, walking over the border in May 1998, then went their separate ways (they haven't spoken since). Boje had $50.
The Life of a Fugitive
For nearly a year, Boje drifted from place to place, cadging rides and scrounging off the-books jobs organic Farmland, hemp-handicrafts salesperson desperately afraid that she would be found and arrested. "I didn't know if they were going to reinstate the charges, or when, so I just traveled around and kept a low profile," she recalls. "I thought, maybe they'll never find me and I can kind of just live this way, and figure it all out later." The bad news arrived late last year, via a friend's message to her secret e-mail account. The charges were reinstated; Evanguelidi had already turned herself in. Boje considered surrendering, too, but after consulting a local attorney, she decided against it. "After my experience in jail," she said, "I just couldn't imagine going back"
So instead she bought some henna, colored her blond hair red, and kept moving. She eventually landed with a group of "compassionate use" pot growers in Vancouver, where she says she baked pot brownies for people with AIDS (prescription marijuana is technically illegal in Canada, but exceptions are granted by the Minister of Health on a case-by-case basis). The Royal Canadian Mounted Police caught up with her one morning last February, slapped her with a formal extradition request from the State Department in Washington and took her into custody.
An Uncertain Future
As it turns out, she was granted bail (an anonymous donor put up the money) and a hearing, set for this fall. As she awaits a resolution of her fate, Boje sticks to a vegan diet, practices yoga and even takes belly-dancing lessons to stave off her anxiety. "I find it helps to move my body," she says late one afternoon on Zen Central's sun-drenched balcony. She lives here openly as the guest of Maury Mason, a retired director of Canadian Greenpeace who took her in after her jail release and now volunteers as her campaign director and publicity guru.
As Glamour went to press, Boje's first extradition hearing to determine whether Canadian authorities would return her to the United States for prosecution was scheduled the winter, says John Conroy, one of Boje's Canadian attorneys. If she loses, she will likely be sent back to stand trial in Los Angeles, where the prosecution of McCormick and McWilliams was scheduled to begin in November. But Conroy is cautiously optimistic: Medical marijuana is a less controversial issue in Canada, where the country's top health official this summer ordered rigorous research on the drug. If Boje wins, she will be allowed to petition to stay in Canada or leave there for another nation.
She expects to stay. In addition to fighting her extradition, Boje is waging an historic campaign to gain asylum in Canada, much as Vietnam War resisters did three decades ago. Her argument is based on the severity of America's drug laws, particularly the punishments handed down under federal mandatory sentencing guidelines, which she feels constitutes persecution when applied in cases involving medical marijuana.
These are pretty onerous stakes to be resting on the fate of one young woman, and especially when winning carries an awful price. She will never be able to come home, and though her family and friends may visit her, they have not yet made the trip. "If I get married, she won't be at the wedding," says her brother, Jason. "That's so sad to me."
But Boje doesn't allow herself to think about what she's missing. She has no time or use for romance, and has no paying job. Instead, she devotes her days to researching precedents and promoting her defense fund at concerts and coffee shops and on the Web (www.thecompassionclub.org/renee). She will need at least $250,000, she says. On the last day of Glamour's visit, she had only $21 in the bank. But she pushes on now with a newfound confidence that her case, despite the odds, is at least worth fighting.
"I had no idea it would so profoundly change my life when I started to work for Todd," she says during a hike near Zen Central, a large, black-and-white cat called Monkey Boy following at her heels. "At first I was just in total shock. Then suddenly I lost my fear a few months ago. I was sitting on the beach and meditating, and felt myself change from victim to warrior. I thought, You vote on a law, and it passes, and then the government just ignores it?"
At times, she says, the thought of her friend McCormick being denied his natural medication makes her cry in anger. That's when she finds the strength to continue.
She bends down to give Monkey Boy a pat. "I don't intend to lose," she says, smiling. "It's not an option for me, really."
Copyright 1999 Glamour Magazine
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