After that final garage sale, after I’d given away treasured possessions I’d had ever since I was a teenager, I sat in an empty house smoking a bowl of White Widow, contemplating the logistics of fleeing my home country, the United States.
In my backpack was a round-trip ticket to Vancouver, Canada, but I had no intention of using the entire ticket. There would be no return flight to the USA for me. Once I arrived in Canada, I was there to stay.
My decision to leave America was complex and bittersweet. It had its genesis in 1998, when I was arrested for growing 28 medical marijuana plants in an indoor grow room at my home.
I’d had sports injuries and surgeries that caused severe pain; marijuana was my best medicine, and I grew it because I could not afford to buy it. Yet even though I lived in California and helped Dennis Peron pass Proposition 215 ? the first voter-approved medical cannabis legalization law in the US ? I learned during my arrest that American police were a law unto themselves. I found out that the drug war was a real war, and that people like me, even though I had a medical marijuana recommendation from a doctor, could too easily become casualties.
During the 16 months that I spent my life savings on ineffectual lawyers who did little to fight the charges against me, I learned that the US justice system was as corrupt as its police force. In court, I saw child molesters get two-year sentences, while marijuana growers received five-year sentences. I met dozens of marijuana defendants whose rights had been violated, assets seized, lives ruined. I saw judges who didn’t fairly judge, prosecutors who got too much pleasure out of prosecuting, attorneys who sold out their clients.
I was convicted of felony marijuana cultivation and sentenced to 60 days in jail. Inside the grim prison where I served my time, I fought off rapists, guards, and depression. When I got out of jail, I was unemployable ? the felony conviction was a total turn-off for employers. I had college degrees and a good work history but it didn’t matter ? I couldn’t even get a job at McDonald’s.
Struggling along unemployed and trying to rehabilitate my life, I deluded myself into thinking I could stay in the US and somehow survive there despite the drug war. I lived like a refugee ? my heart started pounding faster whenever I saw a police car, and I was scared to grow my own medicine, so I had to pay $400 an ounce for it ? $400 that I didn’t have.
When the government’s reaction to 9-11 included removing constitutional protections that guaranteed citizens a right to privacy and protection against police searches, confiscations, and other dirty tricks, and when the Bush administration carried out its illegal invasion of Iraq, I realized that my country had become Babylon, and that I had to leave.
As a long-time reader of Cannabis Culture who was also familiar with the magazine’s website and internet television network, I learned that a lot of Americans were leaving the US for Canada.
Two informal organizations have formed to help these reefer refugees. One, based in Toronto, is called the deGaulle Project, named after French General Charles deGaulle who fled France for the safety of England during World War II, returning after the war to help rebuild his country.
Cannabis Culture publisher Marc Emery and activist David Malmo-Levine have also set up a website, called “The Underground Railroad,” that offers information for Americans who wanted to flee north.
“We aren’t smuggling people across the border,” Malmo-Levine explained, “but we are providing information that helps people understand how to get into Canada and stay in.”
There was talk of “safe houses” and how much money and identification to bring with me when I made the trip north. Malmo-Levine advised me to work through the financial, logistical and emotional issues related to leaving my home country, before I left.
“Once you come over, it’s not likely you can get back,” he counseled. “You will probably be leaving family and friends behind, as well as assets. You have to be ready to start a new life. Make sure you can handle it. We’ve had too many cases of Americans coming here and then falling apart because of homesickness and the difficulty of being a pot refugee.”
In wanting to leave the US, I was in historically good company. During the 1800’s, when slavery was an official economic policy in many American states, anti-slavery activists, churches, and progressives organized an “Underground Railroad” that helped slaves flee their Southern owners between 1830 and 1870. These slaves initially settled in the Northern US, but in 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act made it easier and more profitable for slave hunters to find and corral escapees, so the Railroad changed its routing, and began sending slaves to what is today called the province of Ontario, Canada.
During the Vietnam War, an estimated 125,000 Americans fled to Canada between 1964 and 1973. Many of them were draft-dodgers who left their country to avoid being sent to war. Others were soldiers who deserted the military and went to Canada. Then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau passed a law which forbade immigration officers from asking Americans about their draft status, making it easier for them to escape into Canada.
According to census figures and sociological studies, approximately half of these people stayed in Canada, and have had a considerable influence on the country. Many were unable to get legal employment, and so they turned to cannabis cultivation to pay the bills. Many also formed communes, ecological organizations, and political justice enterprises that helped make Canada the progressive haven that it is today.
In the 1980’s, increasing numbers of marijuana refugees and connoisseurs began emigrating to Canada, drawn by its relatively liberal marijuana laws and sentencing, as well as its wide-open spaces and pot-friendly climate.
Top growers from the US West Coast settled in Canada’s most temperate province, British Columbia, where they helped Canadians develop new outdoor marijuana varieties grown in the interior, on islands, in coastal forests, and in indoor grow rooms. The Canadian government has not welcomed American pot migrants, but they’ve been heading North anyway, fueled by a desire for liberty and opportunity.
“America’s drug war has been to Canada’s benefit,” Malmo-Levine told me. “The creative people in America, the people who love nature, herb and freedom, they’ve come here to make Canada a more peaceful, cannabis-friendly country, and now a new generation of immigrants is coming up.”
Getting into Canada is relatively easy ? if you have no criminal convictions on your record and none pending.
There are various categories of legal immigration. If you get a Canadian company to offer you employment, or if you show the Canadian government you have the funds and expertise necessary to set up a legitimate business in Canada, you might be allowed to immigrate under NAFTA agreements and other pro-business policies.
If you are accepted into eligible vocational schools, colleges and universities, you can get a student visa that allows you to stay in Canada during the term of your studies. You might also get legal immigration status if you have close relatives who are Canadian citizens, or if you marry someone who is a Canadian citizen or who lives in Canada legally.
However, if you have been convicted of marijuana crimes or other crimes in the US, or if you are facing criminal charges there, you are going to have a harder time legally entering and staying in Canada.
How would the Canadian government know about your history if you showed up at the border and tried to cross over into Canada? The US-Canada border has become increasingly militarized, and border guards for both countries are more diligent than ever. The US government has increased the number of military soldiers and border personnel stationed at the border, and has also installed motion sensors, infrared cameras, and other high-tech devices. The US and Canada are sharing criminal history information using a high-speed, cross-linked computerized database, and Canadian border agents have begun enforcing Canadian laws that refuse entry to foreigners convicted of even minor drug crimes.
However, not every person heading North is checked out in detail. Customs and immigration agents rely on profiles, and random sampling, to do their job.
Before I headed North, I cut my long hair, bought a business suit, new luggage and a shiny leather briefcase, printed some fake business cards identifying myself as a computer programmer, and put about $1,000 worth of cash in my wallet. I wanted to look as “straight” as possible ? if you’re trying to cross and you have dreadlocks and a hemp shirt on, all I can say is, “Good luck, you’ll need it.”
I’d been warned that if Canadian officials decided to take me into a special questioning area that it was likely they would run a computerized background check, which would almost certainly show that I had been arrested for marijuana in the US.
I was also advised to rehearse a simple cover story that gave me a legit reason for visiting the country. If I was singled out for questioning and my cover story did not work, officials would then have almost certainly told me to leave the country, and if I did not leave voluntarily, they could take me into custody and make me wait until I had an immigration status hearing the next day ? a hearing I would certainly lose, and then I would be barred permanently.
I might have exercised my right at that point to claim refugee status. Famous American pot refugees like Renee Boje and Steve and Michele Kubby have claimed refugee status.
The Kubbys have had a formal immigration hearing and are waiting to find out in October if they will make history by being classified as official refugees. Boje has been in Canada since 1999, yet she is not as far along in the process; the Canadian government is being pressured by a US “fast-track” extradition order that would bring the former art student back to the US to face federal charges related to a med-pot grow operation in Southern California.
“It will be interesting to see what the Canadian government does with these cases,” explained Alex Stojicevic, a Vancouver-based immigration attorney who has helped represent Boje and the Kubbys.
“There are various ways you can gain legal status in Canada, even if you’ve got past marijuana convictions,” he explained. “If enough time goes by, or if the offense you were convicted of in the states is something that is not considered a serious crime in Canada, you might be able to get yourself ‘rehabilitated,’ which means your past is not then used as a barrier to your entry or your staying in Canada.
“You could try to claim refugee status,” continued Stojicevic, “but we won’t know how well that works until we see the rulings in the Kubby and Boje cases. You’ll need a good lawyer, some money, and a way to prove that you will not cause problems in Canada if they let you in.”
If you decide to cross into Canada as a refugee:
Apply at any Canadian border crossing. You can also apply from within Canada. Visit the Canadian government’s Immigration website, www.cic.gc.ca for more information. Also visit www.irb.gc.ca, which will give you information about procedures used by the Immigration Review Board when it examines your refugee claim.
You will be asked why you consider yourself to be a refugee, and you will be required to fill out several forms and submit to a physician’s exam. You have to provide a credible story that indicates you face persecution in your home country.
In Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia, you might qualify for assistance from Legal Aid. In other provinces there is no Legal Aid available for refugee cases. In any case, you can possibly get assistance from other organizations that assist immigrants.
If you have the money, hire an immigration lawyer.
If you lose your initial claim, you can ask for two reviews of the decision. If those reviews come back with a negative determination, you can file a “Humanitarian and Compassionate” status application. You can be removed from Canada while this is pending. If you lose at all levels, you must leave Canada for 90 days before returning to make a new claim.
If you lose one claim, it is unlikely that a second claim will be approved.
If you decide to sneak across the border rather than applying as a refugee or by other legal means:
Be prepared to hike, ski, tunnel or otherwise move clandestinely into Canada.
Consider hiring an “immigrant smuggler,” but be advised that these people are often unsavory, costly and dangerous.
Scout out border geography, seasonal variations, and other practical factors, and anonymously query people via the Internet and other methods to find out what sections of the border are least likely to be patrolled and are remote-monitored.
Be aware that border security has been heightened and that you can face serious charges if you are caught. However, you can also make a refugee claim if you are caught by Canadian authorities.
If setting up in Canada as an illegal immigrant, be sure to keep a low profile. Don’t draw legal attention by getting caught speeding or otherwise breaking the law. Be respectful of your host country and work to ensure that Canada remains a free and tolerant nation.
I followed the advice of Malmo-Levine, Stojicevic and other immigration advisors, but was still worried when I walked up to the airport immigration officer in Vancouver and presented my passport.
My whole life came down to this one moment: if the officer decided to run a computer background search on me, my dream of entering Canada would become a nightmare.
Instead, he asked a couple of perfunctory questions and waved me through. Then a different officer stopped me and asked a few more questions after I’d collected my luggage, but he also waved me through. Within minutes, I was hailing a taxi, on my way to the low-rent flophouse apartment I’d procured by phone from the US.
As soon as I could, I got out of my business suit and took a bus to the 300 block of West Hastings Street, Vancouver’s most pot-friendly block, where the BC Marijuana Party bookstore is located. The smell of ganja was in the air ? a smell I noticed everywhere I went. I was overjoyed to meet Marc Emery, Marijuana Man, Chris Bennett, and other iconic pot people I’d read about in Cannabis Culture magazine and seen on Pot-TV.
Marijuana Man rolled a phat joint of Dutch Treat and we got stoned while a wannabe American refugee and his family talked nearby about how they had to flee their home in the American Midwest before it was “too late.”
“I wasn’t even growing,” the man said, while his cute toddler daughters played nearby. “I just knew that my neighbor down the street had a grow room. The cops have ruined his life, and pretty soon, I know they will charge me and ruin mine. They’d try to take my kids away from me, and then I’d have to kill them. We’re gonna get out while we still can. The USA is ruined anyway. Why stay?”
The dad and I talked about how marijuana consciousness had affected Vancouver. The city was more relaxed, friendly and beautiful than any city in the US, even San Francisco, and I quickly learned not to be afraid all the time, not to be worried that a cop would arrest me if I was smoking a joint on the beach, and not to be worried that my fellow citizens were oppressed, unhappy, or dangerous ? they weren’t, they were mostly stoned and Irie.
I reflect on my exodus as I sit writing this while overlooking the Pacific Ocean. As you can see in the movie Bowling for Columbine, Canadians are more trusting, less violent, and happier than Americans. Marijuana is an integral part of the culture and economy here, and generally, so is tolerance, multiculturalism, respect for human dignity, and natural beauty.
I left everything behind to come here, but I gained more than I lost. Next year, when my US probation term officially expires, Stojicevic will help me apply for official status. If Bush wins again in 2004, I will give up my US citizenship and become Canadian. The future of herb, and of the planet, is here in Canada anyway.
And if I can do this, you can too. The border isn’t a wall ? yet!