AUBURN, Calif. — Five years after fleeing to Canada to avoid jail, medical marijuana activist Steve Kubby returned here in handcuffs Friday facing an uncertain future and a stint behind bars that his doctor contends might prove a death sentence.
Law enforcement officers whisked Kubby off a commercial jet at San Francisco International Airport on Thursday evening, and friends said he soon began to feel the effects of his rare form of adrenal cancer while in custody.
"I got a call from Steve from jail, and he said he was suffering," said Dale Gieringer, director of California NORML, a cannabis advocacy group. "It doesn't have to work this way."
Several physicians who have examined Kubby, a former Libertarian candidate for governor and a driving force behind California's victorious 1996 medical marijuana initiative, contend the drug blunts the worst symptoms of his cancer, which can be fatal.
Kubby, who last week exhausted his final appeals to remain in Canada, had expected to voluntarily surrender to authorities in Auburn, the Placer County seat, after a court hearing scheduled for Tuesday.
Bill McPike, a Fresno attorney who accompanied Kubby on his flight from Vancouver, said the arrest after the Alaska Airlines flight took them by surprise.
"Maybe they didn't trust he'd show up," said McPike, who plans to argue in court for Kubby to be allowed cannabis in jail. "But why would he buy a $900 plane ticket to come back to surrender and then not appear?"
Placer County officials said police in San Francisco were following through on an arrest warrant issued years ago for Kubby, who failed to appear to serve 120 days in jail on drug charges when he fled in 2001.
"For some time he's had a felony warrant out," said Dena Erwin, a Placer County sheriff's spokeswoman. "We notified San Francisco and left it up to them how they'd make the arrest."
Kubby's oncologist in Canada expressed worries Friday that his rare form of cancer, pheochromocytoma, could threaten his life if he isn't allowed to continue using cannabis. Since the cancer was diagnosed a quarter century ago, Kubby, 59, has smoked up to a dozen marijuana cigarettes a day.
"The possibilities of what might happen are of a wide range, either from nothing much at all to that he might become sick and die," said Dr. Joseph Connors, an oncologist and University of British Columbia clinical professor.
Connors said there was no reason to subject Kubby to that risk. The cancer specialist has examined Kubby extensively and said he believed marijuana has kept the worst symptoms of his cancer in check.
"There's no other reasonable explanation for how he's done so well for so many years," Connors said.
Connors said a tumor in Kubby releases dangerous levels of substances called catecholamines -- colloquially known as adrenalin -- into his blood. Results can range from heart palpitations and shortness of breath to heart attack, stroke or even death in a "catecholamine storm," Connors said.
But Erwin said Kubby would not be allowed to use marijuana in jail, adding, "We're a no-smoking facility."
Kubby was sentenced in March 2001 to four months in jail for possession of a peyote button and one hallucinogenic mushroom after jurors acquitted him of more serious charges of selling pot grown at his home near the Squaw Valley ski resort.
Amid wrangling with authorities over the sentence, Kubby moved with his family to British Columbia in May 2001 and tried to fight from afar.
Around the time Kubby left, judges in Placer County ordered his original misdemeanor conviction for possession of the peyote boosted to a felony. Kubby has called the ruling a miscarriage of justice pushed by law officers bent on punishing him for championing the state's medical marijuana law.
Christopher Cattran, a Placer County deputy district attorney, noted that an appeal by Kubby of the stiffer sentence was rejected by the state's 3rd District Court of Appeal.
"He keeps bringing all these things up, and there's nothing to base it on," Cattran said.
The appellate court declared Kubby a fugitive, and he now could face three years in prison for felony possession of mescaline, a hallucinogen found in the button of mescal cactus, or peyote. Kubby has maintained that the peyote discovered during a raid of his home was left in a guest bedroom by a visitor.
"I really do fear for the worst for Steve," said his wife, Michele, who remained in Canada with the couple's two young daughters. "Things are grim. I'm struggling to find hope in this situation."
The family wanted to stay in Canada, she said. But an attempt to win refugee status by Kubby and several other medicinal marijuana users who fled the U.S. flopped in the immigration courts.
Out of options, Kubby left Canada amid a festive atmosphere and mob of supporters Thursday afternoon at Vancouver International Airport.
McPike said the flight was uneventful, but after pulling up to the gate the pilot told passengers to remain seated and Kubby was called forward.
McPike then walked to the front of the plane, where he met police officers and U.S. Customs Service agents.
They warned him to return to his seat and ordered Kubby off the plane.
Kubby was rushed by police to San Mateo County Jail, where he spent the night. Placer County sheriff's deputies picked up Kubby on Friday morning and took him to Auburn.