By Phillip Smith
Canada's "Prince of Pot" Marc Emery has finally returned to Canada after spending just over 4 ½ years in US federal prison for selling marijuana seeds over the Internet. From his base in Vancouver, BC, Emery parlayed his pot seed profits into a pro-marijuana legalization political juggernaut.
Not only did the gregarious former libertarian bookseller relentlessly hassle Canadian and American drug warriors -- including the dour then-drug czar, John Walters -- he published Cannabis Culture magazine, created the BC Marijuana Party and helped turn parts of downtown Vancouver's Hasting Street into a Western Hemisphere Amsterdam, complete with a vaporizer lounge and several other cannabis-related enterprises.
Emery also put a bunch of his money -- several hundred thousand dollars -- into financing marijuana reform efforts on the US side of the border. It's hard to say what, exactly, got him in the sights of US law enforcement, but when he was arrested by Canadian police at the behest of US authorities, the DEA was certainly quick to gloat that it had struck a blow against the forces of legalization.
The US eventually got its pound of flesh from Emery, forcing him into a plea bargain -- to protect his coworkers -- that saw him sentenced to five years in federal prison for his seed selling. Emery did his time, was released from prison earlier this summer, then sent to a private deportation detention facility in the US before going home to Canada less than two weeks ago.
But if US and Canadian authorities thought they had silenced one of the biggest thorns in their side, they should have known better. Nearly five years in prison hasn't exactly mellowed Emery; instead, he is more committed than ever to drug war justice, and he's raring to go.
The Chronicle spoke with him via phone at his home in Vancouver Monday. The topics ranged from prison life to marijuana legalization in the US to Canadian election politics and beyond.
"If you go to jail for the right reasons you can continue to be an inspiration," Emery said. "I got a lot of affirmation, thousands of letters, people helped to cover my bills, and that's a testament to my influence. My experience was very positive. I network well and try to live in the present moment, just dealing with what's going on."
Still, Emery needed about $180,000 to get through those 4 ½ years behind bars, including more than $18,000 in email costs -- it isn't cheap for federal prisoners to send emails, but for Emery, keeping his voice heard in the outside world was a necessity. He reports having received between $70,000 and $80,000 in donations while in the slammer.
"That still left Jodie doing the near impossible," he said. She traveled from Canada to the southern US 81 times to visit her husband, visiting him on 164 days and spending a like amount of time in transit. If it weren't for Jodie Emery, prison would have been a much lonelier place, as it is for most inmates.
"In my prison, there were 1,700 prisoners, but on an average weekend, only 25 were getting a visit," Emery noted, adding that most inmates were either black or brown. "And other than Jodie, only seven people came to visit me."
While Emery waited in prison, the world continued to turn, and he has emerged into a different place. Now, two US states and Uruguay have legalized marijuana outright, and two more states and the District of Columbia are likely to do so this fall. For the Prince of Pot, it's all good.
"I like that Washington and Colorado went for two different models, although I think the Colorado model is better and has been more quickly executed," he said. "In both places, prices haven't really dropped, but they will once other states come on board. It has been really encouraging to see that people would travel to another state to buy it legally."
That's a good thing for the cannabis culture, he said.
"We are a proud culture. Legalization means a lot of things, and one of them is the end of stigmatization. We've been picked on and scapegoated as if we were taking part in some evil practice, but that is largely over in Denver," Emery argued. "They're integrating it into the mainstream economy; we're going to see a lot of interesting things."
Unsurprisingly, the small-L libertarian and marijuana seed entrepreneur is not overly concerned that legalization will lead to the commercialization or corporatization of the herb.
"We need big money in order to have an effective lobby," he said. "When there's something that tens of millions of Americans want, the money will come, and the money is welcome. It's going to put into new products, new technologies, and we have to welcome that. Capitalism is way to make things happen legally, and we need to get those people on board."
But Emery wants people to be able to grow their own, too.
"It's not legal unless we can grow it in our backyards or fields," he said, "and as long as we can grow it, it's basically legal."
That's life in these United States, but Emery, of course, doesn't live in the United States -- in fact, he is now permanently barred from entering the country -- he lives in Canada, and things haven't gone nearly as swimmingly there when it comes to freeing the weed.
A decade ago, Canada was the hope of the global cannabis culture. It appeared poised to make the move toward legalization, but first the ruling Liberals were unwilling to even push through their decriminalization scheme, and then they were defeated by the Conservatives, who went in the other direction on marijuana policy, for instance, by adopting mandatory minimum sentences for growing more than small amounts of pot.
Stephen Harper's Conservatives remain in power today, and Emery has sworn political vengeance on them. He has also aligned himself with the Liberals, whose leader, Justin Trudeau, is now an advocate of legalization. That's in line with Canadian public opinion, which consistently shows strong support for marijuana law reform, including a poll this week that showed two-thirds support for reform, with 35% saying legalize it and 31% saying decriminalize it.
The Liberals are going to try to take back the federal government in elections in October 2015, and Emery is happy to help savage the Conservatives whether it makes Liberals squeamish or not. His return just two weeks ago has already ignited a firestorm of media coverage, with his pot politics naturally front and center.
"We've now hijacked the whole conversation about the election; we are dominating the conversation," he gloated. "It's the number one election topic and has been since the second I arrived back in the country. There have been more than 150 articles about me in the last two weeks. It's a big deal, and I'm delighted it's a big deal. I have critics using up column inches to say disparaging things about me, and that's great, too. There's a real dialog going on, and we have the opportunity to change the feelings of our opponents and get them to understand the benefits to their communities in legalizing marijuana."
But can the Liberals win? Yes, says Emery.
"Election day -- October 19, 2015 -- will be legalization day in Canada. If Trudeau becomes prime minister, there is no going back," he prophesied. "And I am confident the Liberals will win. Normally, the anti-Harper vote is divided among the Greens, the NDP, the Bloc Quebecois, and the Liberals, but this time, with Trudeau being so charismatic, I am urging everyone to just this once vote for the Liberals. And the feedback I am getting is that this is going to happen, a Liberal majority is going to happen, and you should be in on it."
When it comes to marijuana reform, in Emery's eyes, Canadian politicians should take a lesson from their counterparts south of the border.
"My opinion of Americans has only improved," he said. "You did a great job in Colorado and Washington, and even your legislators are underrated. At least one from every state has gone to Colorado to check it out. It's wonderful! Up here, if it weren't for Justin Trudeau, we wouldn't hear anything."
Well, and now, Marc Emery. Again.