Even if you’ve never heard of the Global Marijuana March (GMM), the title itself probably conjures up a few images. And if those images include teenage boys hitting fluorescent bubbling bongs and hippie girls in cotton dresses moving oddly about to “Uncle John’s Band,” then you’re not far off. But it’s also likely that this image is missing a few details — like cops watching on with implicit approval, rousing speeches about decriminalization and a 20,000-person crowd spread across our provincial parliament’s backyard. And these are precisely the details that the Toronto Freedom Festival (TFF), in conjunction with the GMM, will attempt to highlight.
So on May 3, while tokers from Osaka to Thunder Bay to Amsterdam puff, puff and pass in celebration of cannabis across 235 cities worldwide, the organizers of the TFF are hoping to keep the fun, but step up the serious. To do so, the festival will call on a host of speakers, many of whom will use the “speak free” stage to discuss the politics of cannabis. Headlining the event is Marc Emery, a.k.a. “The Prince of Pot,” Canada’s high-profile cannabis activist and the US Drug Enforcement Agency’s “most wanted.” Emery will address his impending five-year sentence in an American jail — time he’ll be serving for countless cannabis-related transgressions such as selling marijuana seeds over the internet. Emery, among eight other speakers, will give participants and cynics alike good reason to take the Freedom Festival a little more seriously.
One of the most compelling of these speakers, Alison Myrden (“Freedom From Bad Prohibition”), is the “leading female spokeswoman” for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). The organization, composed of current and former law enforcement officials, seeks to educate the public about drug-policy failures while restoring faith and respect for officers. Myrden, who says that as a cop she “felt like quite the hypocrite,” plans to speak about legalization. And, as she puts it, bringing an immediate end to “the war on drugs.” When we speak on the phone, Myrden describes the constant and unbearable symptoms she experiences from a disease called tic douloureux. Physicians, I later find out, refer to the neuropathic disorder, as “the most painful condition known to man.” But Myrden, who also suffers from multiple sclerosis, says that most medications she’s tried either don’t help at all, or have unsustainable side effects. “I have a really excruciating pain in my face but I had to jump through hoops to get the only thing I could find to help,” she says, inhaling deeply. That thing? Cannabis. “As soon as I smoked a marijuana cigarette, the pain went away,” she says.
Since obtaining the prescription 13 years ago, Myrden says that her allotment (the largest in Canada) of one ounce a day has replaced over 60 per cent of her pills and thousands of milligrams of morphine. But she hasn’t forgotten how it used to be. Her struggles in attaining cannabis, the side effects of which she likens to those of coffee, are precisely what led Myrden to campaign for its legalization. Since joining LEAP, she’s written countless letters and conducted thousands of interviews advocating “to get all drugs regulated and off the street.”
And with the recent momentum of Bill C-26, there’s been plenty to write about. The bill, which would impose mandatory minimums and more severe penalties relating to drug crimes, was passed by the House of Commons on April 16 and currently awaits debate by the Justice and Human Rights Committee. And Myrden, among others, says enough is enough. She believes we need to stop getting caught up in arresting people for drugs, when drugs should be viewed as a health issue. And she’s certainly not the only one who thinks so.
Ron Marzel, the lawyer who’s been on call at the Global Marijuana March for the past four years, agrees that incarcerating marijuana users doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Marzel is a defending lawyer in the recently appealed high-profile Carasel suit. The case, which he defended before the federal courts, loosened laws surrounding the production of medical marijuana. Marzel, who’ll attend the hearing for Carasel in early September, says he’s optimistic that the federal court of appeal will uphold the original ruling. “People should not be going to jail for possession of cannabis. It’s that simple,” Marzel says. “There are so many people engaged in smoking cannabis recreationally … and [there are]people who are really, really sick and can’t survive without the therapeutic effects that marijuana provides,” he says. “We need to really ask ourselves: what should we be keeping criminal and what shouldn’t we be keeping criminal?” he continues.
On the speaker’s stage, Marzel will address the implications of Carasel, and other legal issues around decriminalization. The former, he says, is “heart-wrenching and dramatic in itself,” and the latter “philosophically important.” Like Marzel, Myrden is concerned that the drug debates are taking place in the wrong part of the public sphere. “Drugs don’t belong in the legal realm,” she asserts with a natural tone of authority. But with legislation constantly changing, it’s impossible to ignore the highly political component to this weedy back and forthing. And Marzel isn’t the first to point to cross-border politics. “Our neighbour to the south of us has a lot of input and persuasiveness on the issue,” he says.
If you ask Marc Emery, he’ll say that’s a watered-down version of the story. “The US plays a dominating role in Canadian drug policy,” says the Prince of Pot from his office at Cannabis Culture in Vancouver. Emery, whose royal nickname reflects years of cannabis-related activism, is fighting extradition to the US for drug charges of selling pot seeds by mail order, a process that could see him serve time in the country he calls “Canada’s retarded younger brother.” We’ll assume that Emery means that though the US is 91 years older than Canada, it acts younger by dragging its feet on progressive drug policy. Still, Emery goes on to say he believes the US feels inferior to Canada, and is jealous and resentful that it is being forced to catch up to the modern world. And there’s plenty more where that came from. The Prince of Pot will kick off the “speak free” festivities (“Freedom to Not be Extradited”), and says he’ll encourage the tokers below the stage to continue to come out in huge numbers.
Emery, who’s been known to blow smoke in cops’ faces at similar events, says he’ll also attempt to bring more seriousness to the party. He plans to remind the crowd that, “while we’re all smoking and having fun, there are people in jail within blocks of Queen’s Park.” (It’s a whole lot of blocks to the Don Jail, but his point is taken.) These are the people, he says, who “have made it possible for us all to break the law simultaneously.” Although the theme of TFF may seem a bit contrived, especially in the titles of some of the speaking events (e.g. “The Freedom to Know Who You Are,” “The Freedom to Party Responsibly,” etc.), there’s a definite sense of political urgency to the content, even if it’s sometimes lost in the public perception of the event. Not that it isn’t also a celebration. “To a certain extent, it is a party,” says Marzel. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. And I hope the party grows and grows so that the political message gets bigger and bigger.”
Article from Eye Weekly magazine, April 30th 2008
MEET MARC & JODIE EMERY IN TORONTO!
If you want to meet up with Marc and Jodie Emery, the editorial team from Cannabis Culture Magazine, over the May 2-4 weekend in Toronto, here are all the places you can expect to find us at — and you are welcome to join us any spot along the way!
Friday, May 2
6:45pm to 8:30pm
Big Fat Burrito Mexican restaurant
285 Augusta, Kensington Market area
Saturday, May 3
10:00am to 12:00pm
Brunch with Marc and Jodie
475 Yonge Street
12:00pm to 6:00pm
Toronto Freedom Festival, Queen’s Park
Vapour Central booth/table in “Yongsterdam district”
(Marc and Jodie will be signing the new CC Mag for $5 per copy!)
7:30pm to 10:00pm
Meet and hang out with Marc and Jodie
Vapor Central, 2nd floor
667 Yonge Street
Sunday, May 4
12:00pm to 2:00pm
Brunch with Marc and Jodie
7 Breadalbine Street
3:00pm to 5:00pm
Meet and hang out with Marc and Jodie
Hot Box Cafe/Roach-a-rama
8:00pm to 11:00pm
Puff Mama’s Burlesque Show
Latvian Hall, 491 College Street