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Marc Emery’s not done yet

‘Prince of Pot’ eager to take up legalization fight after release from U.S. prison

Marc Emery smoking a joint among marijuana plants. The self-styled 'Prince of Pot' is returning to Canada this summer following a five-year prison sentence in the U.S. for selling seeds.
Marc Emery smoking a joint among marijuana plants. The self-styled “Prince of Pot” is returning to Canada this summer following a five-year prison sentence in the U.S. for selling seeds.

Published: June 23, 2014, 9:00 am
Updated: 1 week ago

Marc Emery wakes up having only gotten a few good hours of sleep.

He used to sleep in until much later, but here in the the medium-security prison, they expect your bed made “military style” by 8 a.m. He shares the seven-by-12-foot cell with another inmate, and he considers himself lucky for that. Half the inmates are crammed into three-person cells. He’s already missed breakfast, usually nothing more than oatmeal and an apple or banana. They used to serve grapefruit and oranges with breakfast but too many inmates were making their own illicit alcohol, so now there’s no more citrus fruits.

The rest of his day is predictable. Work for several hours, reading, maybe some TV and lockup by 9:40. The lights go off at 10 p.m., after which he continues reading with a nightlight for a while before falling into an uneasy sleep.

This has been Emery’s routine for much of the last five years, a boring existence for a brash pot activist who was never far from the spotlight or from controversy while still a free man. A man who built a small media empire to promote his cause, relished smoking enormous joints in public and fiercely denounced those who crossed him, once even calling a Liberal justice minister “a Nazi Jew.” (He later apologized.)

Emery is counting down the days before he gets out, and sometime in late August the self-styled Prince of Pot will be back in Canada to smoke his first joint since 2010.

For now Emery is still a guest of the U.S. justice system, biding his time in a federal prison in Yazoo City, Mississippi where he has spent most of his five-year sentence after pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to manufacture marijuana as a result of his seed-selling business in Vancouver. His last official day in custody is July 9, although his deportation back to Canada will take several more weeks after that.

“I find it amazing to believe this is my fifth year in prison on this conviction for selling seeds in the mail to Americans!” Emery writes from Yazoo, where email privileges cost $3 per minute. “I can’t believe I’ve nearly made it!”

A lot has changed in the debate over marijuana prohibition in the intervening years. A half-dozen more U.S. states now allow for medical marijuana, and Colorado and Washington legalized recreational use in 2012.

In Canada, federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has said he favours legalization and, according to some polls, appears likely to form government in 2015, bringing Emery’s lifelong dream within reach.

Now 56, Emery calls the next federal election “pivotal” and has already vowed to travel the country in support of the Liberals with his wife Jodie, herself a prominent activist against marijuana prohibition andpotential Liberal candidate.

“Our job is going to be explaining to the general public how marijuana legalization is not just about pot,” she says in a phone call from Vancouver. “It’s about saving billions of dollars and protecting young people.”

Even the Tories, who oversaw his extradition south, have changed their tune on pot recently. After bringing in more punitive drug laws in 2010, Justice Minister Peter MacKay now says the government is working on legislation that could make possession of small amounts of pot a ticketable offence.

But Emery says his lifelong fight for legalization is not yet over.

“I’ve been a spokesperson, a radical, an activist since 1980,” he says. “It’s what I do well. I’ve run for office 12 times since 1979. I’ve been in retail since 1971. I enjoy meeting the public, I like public speaking, I have a unique place in Canadian history and the mission remains tantalizingly close to being accomplished, but we aren’t there yet.”

He sounds almost messianic when he writes of his “unique lifelong destiny to make a powerful contribution to the legalization of cannabis and the liberation of our people.”

Mark Emery and wife Jodie Emery at an emotional farewell to the Prince of Pot, who was outside the Law Courts to turn himself in for transfer to the US on September 28, 2009 in Vancouver, B.C.   (Ian Smith/Vancouver Sun)

Emery’s activism started early, when he dropped out of high school at age 17 and bought a bookstore in his hometown of London, Ont. He almost immediately became a thorn in the side of police, refusing to close his store on Sundays, as per local bylaws. He was fined and refused to pay, spending some time in jail as a result.

Emery also railed against Canadian censorship laws that banned the sale of pornography and publications about marijuana, including the influential American magazine High Times. To highlight the absurdity of the censorship laws, he sold banned magazines right outside a London police station and, when that didn’t work, Emery even tried to file charges against himself. The police didn’t take the bait.

He ultimately found much more fertile ground for his activism in Vancouver, where he relocated in 1994 to open Hemp BC, a store selling not only marijuana literature but also pipes, bongs and other paraphernalia, which was (and still is) illegal under the Criminal Code. Soon he started his own cannabis magazine through which he advertised his mail-order seed business in an effort to “overgrow the government” across North America.

It wasn’t long before his seed sales gained media attention, even landing him on the front page of the Wall Street Journal in a 1995 article titled “Pot Seed Merchant, Winked at by Police, Prospers in Canada.” It quoted police as saying they had bigger problems with heroin flooding the city than to bother with marijuana seeds, and occasional raids on his store would only result in small fines. But while Canadian authorities largely ignored him, Emery did catch the eye of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, which labelled Emery one of the top drug traffickers in the world.

Emery, however, maintains the DEA’s pursuit of him was always politically motivated. When Emery was finally arrested in 2005 by Vancouver police, acting on the insistence of the DEA, the head of the agency praised the arrest as a “significant blow” to the “marijuana legalization movement.”

There is no one else in the U.S. prison system for selling seeds!

“Karen Tandy made mention of my politics five times in her press release the day of my arrest, and not once said anything about seeds, so of course it’s all political,” Emery says. “There is no one else in the U.S. prison system for selling seeds!”

He made millions from his seed sales, much of which he ploughed into legalization advocacy, marijuana research and court challenges across the continent, as well as founding the B.C. Marijuana Party and running for office at every level of government. He openly admits he was indiscriminate in whom he did business with, so it is conceivable some of those seeds later financed criminal operations, but the crime for which he faced the possibility of decades in U.S. custody had only ever resulted in slaps on the wrist in Canada, and he paid taxes on his illicit income for many years as a “marijuana seed vendor.”

The animosity with which American officials viewed him still raises troubling questions about what kind of pressure they may have exerted on their Canadian counterparts.

Before he left the country, Emery made an access-to-information request about U.S.-Canadian collaboration in his case, only to receive some 6,000 pages of mostly censored documents. In 2011, however, Emery says the Vancouver police returned some confiscated computer equipment from his case “and inadvertently and inexplicably left a several-hundred-page unredacted file on their entire investigation in the boxes of contents” that showed there had been several attempts by DEA agents to purchase marijuana from him.

“The file noted that on three occasions DEA agents undercover tried to buy 10 pounds of marijuana (by phone, email, and in person) and I refused each time.”

Emery’s former lawyer Kirk Tousaw, currently in possession of those documents, corroborated that account, which suggests Canadian authorities gave the DEA broad latitude to pursue a case against Emery on Canadian soil. A Vancouver Police spokesperson declined to comment, saying “it would be inappropriate for the VPD to speak about a DEA case,” and the Department of Justice similarly demurred.

As Vancouver Sun columnist Ian Mulgrew wrote at the time of Emery’s extradition, “Regardless of what you think of Emery, he should not be facing an unconscionably long jail term for a victimless, non-violent crime that generates a shrug in his own country.”

Most of what the prison commissary sells (we can spend up to $320 a month at the inmate store) is junk food, alas, that most inmates like. I would rather the inmate store sell vegetables and healthy foods, because like most institutions, the prison chow hall offers mostly starches, carbs and meats for us at meal time. It is impossible to be a vegetarian because they rarely serve fresh vegetables. So I buy whatever vegetables and fruits I can on the black market. An onion costs $5, a green bell pepper is $3-$5. An apple is 50 cents, as is a banana. a whole cantaloupe or honeydew melon is $5. A tomato is $2 to $4 depending on size. Occasionally a bag of broccoli or cauliflower appears on the black market, and that’s precious, maybe $7-$10 for that.

Read Marc Emery’s letter from prison

Not that Emery wasn’t expecting to go to prison eventually. In some ways he saw it as an essential part of his mission fighting the drug war, to become a martyr for the cause. In a 2007 CBC documentary about his extradition to the U.S., he worried about even taking the plea deal that was offered him for fear he would be falling short of his own standards.

“If I just get five years and I take a deal like that because I’m a coward … then people shouldn’t care about me,” he told his lawyer. “Because for me it’s about the principle.”

He could have spent the rest of his life behind bars if he had fought it out in court, but the plea deal meant his two friends and co-defendants, Greg Williams and Michelle Rainey, would get off on lesser charges and avoid prison. And so the lifelong activist gave up his dreams of martyrdom and took the deal.

Once in the U.S. prison system, he spent weeks in solitary confinement after his wife Jodie recorded one of their phone conversations against the rules, and in 2011 caught MRSA, a highly contagious bacterial infection that can be fatal, while in a privately run prison in Georgia.

“I hated [the prison] D. Ray James, and wrote a weekly blog about how stupidly and terribly it was run, naming names. I got three people fired from there who were idiots and the Bureau of Prisons came to investigate and issued warnings and reprimands,” he says with some pride. “After five months at D. Ray James, they had enough of me bitching and complaining and had me transferred” to the government-run prison where he served out the remainder of his sentence.

He says prison has made him calmer, more reflective. As a former businessman, Emery was given administrative duties three years ago keeping track of what jobs inmates do. It’s not particularly difficult, which leaves him most of his day to work through his 25 magazine subscriptions and his daily copy of the New York Times.

Marc Emery, left, plays with his prison band at FCC Yazoo City in Mississippi.

When he’s not reading, he plays bass with several other inmates in a band that mostly covers classic rock songs. He marvels at his new skill, the way only a man behind bars can cherish playing Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.”

“I had never picked up a musical instrument in my life, and I am still so excited to know I can play these songs and be in a band where everyone knows their part and it comes together beautifully.”

I will be consuming cannabis at the same enthusiastic rate in Canada, and in the same exhibitionistic way, as I did in my peak years

Perhaps most surprising of all, the Prince of Pot says he hasn’t missed getting high. Unannounced urine tests mean he hasn’t dared smoke anything even when it was available lest it cost him early release for good conduct. But that doesn’t mean he won’t take up his old hobby as soon as he gets back to Canada.

“I will be consuming cannabis at the same enthusiastic rate in Canada, and in the same exhibitionistic way, as I did in my peak years,” he writes. “So while I haven’t missed pot at all, I will enjoy it fully.”

So what’s next for Canada’s Prince of Pot?

Emery says he’s writing an autobiography, and although he doesn’t rule out selling marijuana seeds again, he thinks it much more likely that other businesses will seek him out.

“I will certainly be approached by licensed providers, seed producers and marijuana corporations” who want his face or his name on their products, he says.

“A reality show featuring Jodie and me is being shopped. We shall see about that.”

The store and magazine, now both named Cannabis Culture, will also keep the couple busy, but the Emerys won’t be content to sit on the political sidelines in 2015. Jodie may seek the Liberal nomination in the riding of Vancouver East, where the couple’s store is located, and Marc plans to campaign for the Liberals across the country, even if it “might make Mr. Trudeau a bit nervous.”

As the face of the Canadian legalization movement for over a decade he has name recognition, but whether his confrontational style will be welcome on the campaign trail remains to be seen. In fact, he already caused a headache for the prime ministerial hopeful when an old video surfaced last year in which Emery railed against the Liberal MP for smoking “big gaggers” with him and then voting for stricter drug laws. Trudeau said he was “flat out lying” and Emery had to issue a retraction from prison, saying he had exaggerated during an on-stage rant.

Nor is Emery universally lauded among fellow potheads. Judging by comments on various online forums, including the Cannabis Culture website, there are those who consider him an egotistical loudmouth who hurts the movement about as much as he helps it.

But it’s clear those kinds of criticism won’t stop Emery. In an email, he describes a previous cross-country campaign he undertook a decade ago, when it looked as though Jean Chretien’s government would decriminalize small amounts of pot for personal consumption and Emery celebrated by smoking pot in 20 Canadian cities. He says he threw up every single day of that tour, “just wracked with anxiety at the prospect of getting arrested again.”

That was before the DEA came for him, before his trial, before spending years in the U.S. justice system. Prison might have mellowed the Prince of Pot, but it also made him more determined than ever.

“I am the easily the most recognized marijuana legalization activist in the world,” he says. “I have to make good use of my reputation in the cannabis culture, and no job is more important that defeating prohibitionist regimes, and electing governments committed to the liberty of our people.” © COPYRIGHT – POSTMEDIA NEWS
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