Along the rugged coastline of British Columbia, more than a generation ago, the first American refugees trickled in. As the Vietnam War raged, draft dodgers who chose to flee America rather than fight an unacceptable war gravitated to Canada's west coast, to rain-washed Vancouver and northward in tiny villages astride deep fiords left by the glacial past.
A few of the new arrivals brought with them a taste for marijuana, and some began cultivating pot gardens. Isolated from the law by rugged terrain, separated from most of civilization by deep bays, a marijuana industry was born. As the tale goes, the coast north of Vancouver became a pot lover's paradise.
Now a new breed of American refugee has arrived, seeking asylum from a different kind of war--the fight over medical marijuana. By some counts, they number more than 100 expatriate U.S. citizens, many of them from California, the fiercest battleground in America's medpot fight. They are patients and activists who share an uneasy distrust of the U.S. government and dismay over its intolerance of their brand of medicine. And they often arrive scarred by schizophrenic drug policies that now pit the Golden State's lenient laws governing the use of medical marijuana against the federal government's zero-tolerance approach.
Vancouver has become a magnet for this underground railroad of the new millennium. Clean and cosmopolitan, the city is famous worldwide among cannabis aficionados for its high-potency "B.C. Bud" and a largely laissez-faire police response to pot. Though nonmedical marijuana is still illegal in Canada, activists say its recreational use rarely results in arrest. In Vancouver, pot is openly smoked in some Hastings Street cafes. The provincial marijuana party puts up a slate of candidates each election. North of the city, a 30-mile-long knob of bucolic mainland known as the Sunshine Coast rivals California's pot-growing north coast. Locals say marijuana cultivation runs right up there with tourism and retirement checks as a main economic engine. U.S. marijuana expatriates--much like their Vietnam-era brethren who flocked to Canada--are sinking roots into this cannabis-friendly land, launching businesses, raising kids.
But even in open-armed Canada, there are limits for newcomers dubbed criminals. Some of the Americans arrive with drug-war wounds: arrest warrants outstanding, prosecutions pending, jail terms unfulfilled. When immigration officials threatened to toss them out, four California medpot expats--Steve Kubby, Ken Hayes, Renee Boje and Steve Tuck--decided to test Canada's characteristic tolerance. Facing deportation or extradition, they requested something quite extraordinary for citizens of the First World: political refugee status.
That designation is normally reserved for the castoffs of troubled lands, but the four Americans say they are just that. Despite the passage of California's landmark 1996 medical marijuana initiative, U.S. law makes cannabis illegal for any use, putting die-hard activists squarely in the crosshairs of federal drug agents. If returned to the U.S., the California foursome say, they don't face just prosecution for their unyielding embrace of medical marijuana. They face political persecution.
The deportation tussle arrives at a remarkable juncture between these two sister nations. As the U.S. has worked to crush the movement in California and the other states that adopted medical marijuana laws, Canada has legalized medicinal use. Politicians say the Canadian Parliament could go even further this year. Justice Minister Martin Cauchon has endorsed decriminalization, though Prime Minister Jean Chretien is urging more debate. If lawmakers fail to act, the courts seem ready to step in. On Jan. 9, a Superior Court justice in Ontario gave the Canadian government six months to provide safe distribution of medical marijuana or risk opening the door to full legalization. The Canadian Supreme Court appears poised to fashion new law out of three pivotal criminal cases involving Canadians accused of growing, selling or possessing pot. Overnight, the country that has treated recreational marijuana with a wink and a nod might codify its casual stance.
Should it happen, that tectonic shift would rattle the ground under drug warriors in the U.S. The Bush administration has warned that if Canada gets softer on pot, North America could see a boost in drug dependency and gummed-up commerce between the world's two biggest trading partners.
Cannabis has a long and contentious history. It was described in a Chinese medical compendium dating to 2,737 BC. In America, marijuana has been outlawed since the Great Depression. In 1970, the Nixon administration assigned it to Schedule I, a spot reserved for heroin, LSD and other high-octane drugs thought to have no redeeming medical merit. It was Nixon's way, pot advocates say, of shelving the martini of the antiwar movement.