Renee Boje: Another Casualty in the War on Drugs*


It's good to know that our federal government is protecting all of us from the most horrible crimes, as they zealously and relentlessly go after all the bad guys. You know the murderers, robbers, rapists, child molesters and the like.  Yeah right!  Just ask Renee Boje, she'll tell you.

           The case of Renee Boje is one among a long line of federal witch hunts, in search of "dangerous criminals."  The stars of this witch hunt are agents of the DEA.  You know this group as the Drug Enforcement Agency, but I prefer the "Draconian Enforcement Agency."  Of course, the individual agents are not entirely at fault, since they are merely "following orders," sort of like Eichman did in Nazi Germany. They are following orders from Janet Reno, Drug Czar General McCaffrey (just shows you that this is a "war" otherwise why would they appoint a General to lead the attack?) and the entire Justice Department and the Clinton Administration.

At issue here is, among other things, the fact that the federal government refuses to acknowledge the wishes of the citizens of several states that have approved the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.  But the people of these states don't matter.  After all, this is a war and the hell with what the people think and the hell with the Bill of Rights. 

It all started so innocently for Renee Boje back in the summer of 1997, when she befriended Todd McCormick, a marijuana activist who was renting a home in Beverly Hills (specifically, in the exclusive section called Bel Air).  McCormick, who suffers from cancer, was writing a book about growing marijuana, as he discovered long ago that smoking it eased his pain.  He wanted to help others ease their pain.  His efforts were backed not only by medical research, but also Proposition 215, passed in November, 1996, that allowed citizens to use marijuana for medical purposes.  He had received an advance of $100,000 from Peter McWilliams, who had AIDS and was using marijuana to help him cope with this killer disease.  Boje, an artist, was asked by McCormick to help him write the book by doing sketches.  That's when her troubles began.

In July, 1997, federal agents, based on an anonymous tip, raided McCormick's house, claiming that they saw Boje watering and moving some of the marijuana plants.  Boje was stopped shortly after leaving his house and, along with a friend, were ordered out of the car, whereupon they were thrown against her vehicle, handcuffed and read their rights (a nice gesture that shows you the DEA is not in the same league as the Gestapo - but not by much).  They were taken to a nearby fire station, where there were at least 60 armed DEA agents. (Rounding up marijuana traffickers is serious business, requiring unlimited manpower!)  When Boje was told of the pending arrest of McCormick for trafficking in marijuana, she told them it was legal in California, based upon Proposition 215.  The agents said they never heard of it.

Boje was held in a federal women's prison in Los Angeles for 72 hours, was not allowed a phone call, was not given any food and was stripped searched about 15 times (twice witnessed by male guards, not uncommon in women's prisons). She was originally charged with conspiracy, cultivation of marijuana with the intent to distribute and possession.  The charges were eventually dropped.  However, Los Angeles attorney Kenny Kahn, who was representing her, told her that the government was going to reinstate her charges and arrest her again.  He suggested that she should leave the country, as the DEA wanted her to testify against McCormick and McWilliams, which she was refusing to do.  After some deep soul-searching, Renee decided to flee to Canada.

She was eventually picked up by Canadian authorities and extradition procedures were begun.  If she is returned to the United States, she faces a possible prison sentence of ten years to life.  We don't give that much time to those convicted of violent crimes!  Renee is seeking refugee status in Canada and the case has received international publicity.  In fact, McCormick was freed on $500,000 bail posted by actor Woody Harrelson.  McCormick is better off than McWilliams who died of AIDS after being denied the use of marijuana for his illness, despite California law.  It seems that the drug warriors of the United States, led by General McCaffrey and his witch hunters with the DEA and U.S. Attorneys don't care about the wishes of the people.  The general has made it clear that he will never approve the used of marijuana, period!  In fact, he arrogantly called the movement to make it legal a "Cheech and Chong show."

Boje and her attorneys are arguing that she should be granted asylum in Canada because of the severity of U.S. drug laws and the high probability that she will suffer extreme abuse within the women's prison system, mostly by male staff.  Several studies support her fears, including recent reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.  If she wins, it will be a sort of Pyrrhic victory, as she will never be able to come home to her country of birth.  She is hoping that the Canadian people, who are much more sympathetic to marijuana users, will bring enough pressure to bear on the Canadian judicial system.  The judge handling the case is expected to make a ruling sometime in the fall.

Some believe that a ruling in her favor could harm U.S.-Canadian relations.  Some experts also point out that it is rare for Canada to approve asylum, except in cases where the sentence is death.  They may have a point, for in 1998 a total of 62 Americans applied for refugee status in Canada - none was accepted. Most of those who are accepted are from foreign countries that are either non-democratic or going through civil strife.

           To say that this case is a travesty of justice is an understatement.  We must, however, look deeper than this one case. Renee Boje represents a long line of victims of various forms of "witch hunts" throughout American history, especially those related to the government's relentless persecution of various kinds of drug users.  In every case - starting with the Chinese opium users to "crack" using African-Americans - it has been those with little power, mostly minorities, including women, who have been the target. 

This case is not just about Renee Boje.  It is about America's endless racism, classism and sexism.  It is about an inexcusable gap in wealth and power.  It is about the continuous attempts by those with power to hold onto it by engaging in various methods of social control over those without power, whether it be via intense corporate propaganda to "privatize and domesticate aspirations" and make us mere individual consumers (quoting Noam Chomsky) or to use the awesome power of the state to force compliance with the status quo.

We are spending millions of dollars on the drug war and millions more to build jails and prisons to lock up those arrested for "trafficking" in "drugs."  A recent study found that about 1.5 million of the nation's prisoners were convicted of non-violent crimes; around 800,000 are in for drug offenses.  And many drug offenders who are released are sent back to prison merely because they flunked their urine test.  And we the taxpayers are charged around $30,000-40,000 per year for one of these prisoners - all for dirty pee!  Makes you want to salute the flag and feel thankful that you are living in the "land of the free and home of the brave."

I am tired of talking about this issue, but the anger I have drives me to move forward and continue to protest this injustice - and the injustice of the entire drug war.  Why?  If this could happen to someone like Renee Boje (a 30-year-old white woman, an artist and college graduate from a modest background) it could happen to you and me.  That's the scary part.  I feel like looking over my shoulder as I write these words because in a "war" like this one, the Constitution is thrown in the toilet.  You and I can become just another "case" to be processed by DEA agents, another "conviction" by over-zealous federal prosecutors, and another number on a prison uniform.

I grew up in the 1950s with the Lone Ranger, Jack Webb and others who espoused the “rule of law” and that all are “equal before the law.”  I grew up at a time when the courthouse was seen as a symbol of “justice” with the ever-present “blind lady” standing outside, while inside stood an “impartial” judge, with the American flag on one side and the state flag on the other side.  I read with pride the words "with liberty and justice for all" and that "all men are created equal" and that America protected its citizens and citizens of other countries from tyrants and dictators like Hitler.  And I was constantly told that our elected officials - whether they are local, state or federal - represented us.  After all, people died protecting this “democracy.”

But the more I live, and the more cases like Renee's I read about, the more I realize that this is all for show.  That “equal justice for all” is a joke.  That some are more equal than others - it depends upon how much money and power you have.  When the drug agents come after you, you better have a good attorney, plenty of money and plenty of time to spare.  And you better not be someone other than a rich white male with connections.  And the next victim could also be your son or daughter.



* This originally appeared in Las Vegas City Life, August 24, 2000. Renee continues to live in Vancouver, Canada and her case is pending as of March, 2004, according to one of the lawyers handling the case.  This is a long time to remain in political and social limbo.  For more information, go to her web site.