‘Prince of Pot’ is at a low
For years, his seed catalogs were scrutinized by discerning cannabis cultivators across the U.S. and Canada, much like the ladies of Cumbria might fuss over Chiltern’s inventories of sweet peas and heirloom tomatoes.
There was Blue Heaven pot, capable of producing a “euphoric, anti-anxiety high,” or Crown Royal, whose “flower tops come to a flat golden crown, sparkling with gems of THC,” or Hawaiian Sativa, with its “menthol flavor that tingles the taste buds and tickles the brain.”
The difference between Marc Emery’s pot seeds and countless others on the market was that if you bought Emery’s, he’d use the money to launch a cannabis tsunami across North America that would set the war on drugs adrift like a cork on a massive sea of weed.
“Plant the seeds of freedom, overgrow the government,” Emery urged his clients. With a pot plant on every patio, he declared, violent drug gangs would see their livelihoods disappear and police would be reduced to “running around … chasing all these marijuana plants.”
Sooner or later, he promised, “they will simply give up and change the laws.”
Well, not yet. Emery, who U.S. authorities fingered in 2005 as one of the top 46 international drug trafficking targets, was ordered extradited by the Canadian minister of justice last month and relinquished to federal marshals in Seattle. He now faces a likely five years in U.S. federal prison.
“In fact I have done these things, so I admit my guilt,” Emery said in an e-mail after pleading guilty in U.S. District Court to one count of conspiracy to manufacture marijuana. “We are winning, especially in the United States, and I can take a lot of credit for that.... When I am gone, or even locked up here in the U.S., my historical legacy is secure.”
Here in “Vansterdam,” where cannabis cafes, head shops and even a supervised needle-injection site are prominent features of downtown, pot is a multibillion-dollar industry. And Emery, a longtime fixture at political forums and downtown street rallies, is widely seen as one of its titans.
The extradition of the 52-year-old self-proclaimed “Prince of Pot” has sparked a sovereignty outcry across Canada, where supporters, civil rights advocates and even several members of parliament have demanded to know why he was handed over to the U.S. for an offense that Canada seldom prosecutes.
“It seems like the American war on drugs is just reaching its arm into Canada and saying, ‘We’re going to scoop you up,’” said Libby Davies, a member of parliament from Vancouver. “The whole thing has struck people as being over the top, harsh, unwarranted — and at the end of the day, what are they trying to prove?”
Canada and the U.S. have been on strangely opposite political trajectories when it comes to the war on drugs.
As early as 2003, the Canadian government appeared poised to decriminalize marijuana, which is regulated only federally in Canada, but backed down under U.S. threats to throw up punitive border controls.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party since 2006 has backed a series of bills, one now pending in parliament, that would mirror widely criticized U.S. policies and impose for the first time a mandatory six-month jail term on anyone convicted of growing six or more marijuana plants.
The U.S., meanwhile, is moving under the Obama administration toward a stronger focus on prevention and treatment. Fourteen states now allow medical use of marijuana, and California voters will decide in November on an initiative that would decriminalize adult possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and allow small-scale cultivation for personal consumption.
Emery became a target for police in both nations — in Canada because his frequent appearances on international television shows was an irritant to police; in America because his seed business, which at one point reached revenues of $3 million a year, was supplying marijuana-growing operations in at least nine states.
“Marc Emery happened to be the largest supplier of marijuana seeds into the United States,” said Todd Greenberg, the assistant U.S. attorney in Seattle who is prosecuting Emery’s case.
Emery believes he caught the eye of the Drug Enforcement Administration not because of his seeds but because of what he did with his revenue. Living in a rented apartment with no car and few personal possessions, Emery channeled most of the millions he earned into marijuana legalization and defense efforts across North America.
The Prince of Pot’s seed money has helped start “compassion clubs” for medical-marijuana users across Canada, launch the Pot-TV Internet network, and fund lobbying organizations and political parties in North America, Israel and New Zealand.
Many of the state campaigns to legalize the medical use of marijuana in the U.S. did so with donations from Emery. He ran for mayor of Vancouver in 1996, 2002 and 2008, finishing a perennial fourth or fifth.
“When Marc was arrested, he had $11 in his bank account,” said his wife, Jodie, 25, who has co-edited Emery’s magazine, Cannabis Culture, and served as his deputy in the Marijuana Party of British Columbia, which he founded. The party took 3.5% of the vote in the 2000 elections and made cannabis a must-address issue in every election since.
Emery won few friends in President George W. Bush’s administration when former drug czar John Walters, apparently seeking to stamp out rumblings of marijuana decriminalization among Canada’s then-ruling Liberal Party, addressed the Vancouver Board of Trade in 2002.
Emery surreptitiously bought a table at the event, and along with fellow activists David Malmo-Levine and Chris Bennett, heckled Walters mercilessly. The next day, activists blew marijuana smoke in Walters’ face during a tour of downtown
Not long after that, they figure, is when the U.S. investigation of Emery was launched. But his friends say that only increased his sense of mission — and self-esteem.
“A lot of people take great offense when he gets compared to people like Martin Luther King and Gandhi, and they say, ‘Marc, you can’t compare yourself to someone like that.’ And he says, ‘These are men who stood up for things … who suffered for what they represented, and to many, many people, they were the leader of their movement,’” Jodie said.
“Marc does have a gigantic ego,” she said.
“Majestic,” said Malmo-Levine.
Cannabis has been Emery’s holy grail, but it would be a mistake, his friends say, to think of him as a pothead weaned on tree-hugging and the Grateful Dead. To the contrary, he is a libertarian capitalist whose politics lean free-market, individual-rights Republican.
“A lot of people think he’s a leftie, but he’s really a true conservative. He wants to get the government out of people’s lives,” his wife said.
As a 17-year-old high school dropout in London, Ontario, he opened his own bookstore, City Lights, in 1975, and clashed with the authorities there for selling banned copies of High Times magazine and the rap group 2 Live Crew’s forbidden CD “As Nasty as They Wanna Be.”
Emery was arrested not only for selling banned material but for repeatedly defying the province’s Sunday closure laws; after years of conflict, he moved to Vancouver, where he hooked up with local hemp activists who shared his growing fascination with the history of cannabis and the governmental campaigns against it.
“‘Where, oh where, are the hemp professionals?’ He totally slammed all these guys in dreadlocks,” Bennett recalled. “I’d say, ‘Who are you to criticize anybody? Are you going to get pot legalized?’ And he said, ‘Just watch me.’”
Emery opened his pot paraphernalia store, BC Hemp, in 1994 and started up his seed business later that year. Over the years he has been arrested more than a dozen times, whether for selling seeds in Vancouver or passing a joint in Saskatoon, but hasn’t faced serious jail time until now.
His seed business, he has argued, did more good than harm by undermining the criminal cartels that have turned marijuana trafficking into a corrupt and violent international business.
“What I did was make it possible for small home growers to produce their own made-in-the-U.S.A. marijuana,” he said. “I stopped millions of American dollars from flowing to terrorists, cartels, thugs and gangs.”
The mainstream marijuana legalization movement in the United States, however, has been largely silent since his arrest, not lending their voices, for example, to the rallies in nearly 80 cities around the world that followed Emery’s transfer to the U.S.
It was largely alone that Emery sat in a Seattle courtroom late last month, with only a handful of supporters on the benches.
He had agreed to plead guilty to the single count of conspiracy to manufacture marijuana, Jodie said, largely to ensure that his two employees also charged in the indictment would not have to serve jail time.
“It was the most preferable of all the alternatives,” a subdued Emery told Judge Ricardo S. Martinez, who asked why he was admitting to the charge.
“Sometimes there are no alternatives, you’re right,” the judge said. “There are only bad and worse.”
Emery was led away not long after that, but nobody really expected he’d go quietly.
The Prince of Pot’s blog posts from the SeaTac detention center go out regularly on the Internet to his supporters. What he wants to do next, though his attempt to get a recorded phone call out has so far only gotten him stuck in solitary confinement: Potcasts.