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'Pot Refugee' May Be Forced to Leave Canada

March 06, 2003|Lynn Marshall and Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writers

VANCOUVER, Canada — He had to flee, or so he insists. The land where he was born and ran for political office and beat back cancer would no longer tolerate the man or his medicine. Jail awaited for drug crimes.

So it was that Steve Kubby, Californian and medical marijuana patient, journeyed north to British Columbia and a new home that seemed accepting of the pot he insists he needs to stay alive.

But now Canada may withdraw its welcome.

Immigration officials are pushing to deport Kubby for drug violations stemming from a 1999 bust of his medical marijuana garden in Squaw Valley, Calif. Kubby, 56 and still wrestling with adrenal cancer, countered by seeking to become a political refugee. If he is returned to America, Kubby contends, he will face persecution and death.

On Wednesday, a hearing began in Vancouver to decide if this American -- one of four U.S. medical marijuana expatriates seeking to become refugees -- will be turned out by his adopted homeland.

His case appears to be a longshot: Canadian immigration officials say only one U.S. citizen has ever won refugee status. But it has stoked memories in western Canada of Vietnam-era draft resisters who fled the United States decades ago. It also has caused a stir in government offices on both sides of the border.

Kubby, ever pugnacious, is representing himself -- and being allowed to take regular breaks to smoke marijuana. Procedural matters took up much of Wednesday, but Kubby vowed in his opening statement to put America's drug war on trial.

The U.S. government, Kubby said, is intent on undercutting Proposition 215, California's landmark 1996 medical marijuana initiative, and persecuting "anyone who attempts to show leadership on this issue."

Gordon Starr, one of two government immigration attorneys opposing Kubby, expressed confidence in the checks and balances of the U.S. justice system and insisted that the medical marijuana advocate and his family would face "no threat to their lives or cruel and unusual punishment."

Kubby's refugee application has outraged conservative leaders in Canada. Randy White, a member of Parliament from British Columbia, said before the hearing that a Kubby victory would create a land rush of American drug criminals. He called it "a very slippery slope" that threatens to make Canada "the marijuana sanctuary for every medically suffering pot smoker on the planet."

U.S. officials also have voiced grave concerns. In recent years, more than 100 medical marijuana activists and patients -- some of them bearing the scars of the drug war -- have joined Kubby to seek asylum in Canada.

John Walters, President Bush's U.S. drug policy chief, has warned Canadian officials against legalizing marijuana and going soft on Americans seeking sanctuary. Richard Meyer, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman, said American drug expatriates are abusing the Canadian system.

The refugee hearing, scheduled to last eight days, comes as Canada's Parliament and courts are edging ever closer toward decriminalizing marijuana's recreational use. Canada legalized medical cannabis two years ago.

"I think this case says a lot about Canada, and a lot about the U.S.," said Dan Toley, 39, a Kubby supporter waiting to get into the hearing. Toley said he frequently meets U.S. expatriates who have been "hounded by their federal government.... We have to keep this madness south of the border."

In the U.S., meanwhile, federal drug agents and prosecutors continue to press charges against high-profile medical cannabis advocates in California. It's one of nine states that have passed medical cannabis laws conflicting with federal statutes that prohibit pot possession for any purpose.

Recently, several drug cases have turned into public embarrassments for federal officials -- and Kubby has promised to cite them during the hearing as proof that American drug agents are persecuting leaders of a movement.

In September, a raid on a medical pot dispensary in Santa Cruz prompted council members to protest on the steps of City Hall, where activists distributed marijuana to patients.

In February, four jurors in the San Francisco trial of Ed Rosenthal took the unusual step of publicly disavowing the verdict and criticizing the trial judge for not allowing evidence that the activist was growing marijuana for a dispensary.

"If Steve Kubby is returned to the U.S., he would be selected out for punishment because of his prominence and advocacy and resistance to the U.S. justice system," said Rosenthal, who will testify by telephone on Kubby's behalf. "In California, anyone who is an advocate is a target. It's a means to squelch the political end of this movement, and it's a very dangerous precedent for all of society."

Diagnosed with adrenal cancer in the late 1960s, Kubby underwent four surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation, but nothing helped. Unchecked, adrenal cancer usually spreads through vital organs and kills within five years.

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