The Evolution of John McKay

One day in March, John McKay ran into Jodie Emery. It was an encounter that should have been awkward—to say the least.

McKay, the former U.S. Attorney for Western Washington, had put Emery’s husband Marc in prison. The so-called “Prince of Pot” is now serving a five-year-sentence in connection with the seed empire he ran from Vancouver, B.C., a business hailed as heroic by the legalization movement and demonic by federal law-enforcement authorities like McKay.

“He may become the Prince of Federal Prison,” McKay quipped on a 60 Minutes episode as his office sought extradition of the pot entrepreneur to the U.S.

“Mr. McKay? I’m Jodie Emery,” said the glamorous, dark-haired 26-year-old, who still runs a pot-paraphernalia store in Vancouver called Cannabis Culture.

McKay, 55, is known for his gregarious charm. Despite his high-profile career and roots in Northwest Republican aristocracy, he likes to call himself “an Irish country lawyer.” At this moment, however, the onetime George W. Bush appointee “was extremely flustered,” Emery recalls.

“I’ve never met your husband,” he said, quickly.

“I know you haven’t,” she replied, “and I know there’s no personal thing here, so that’s why I don’t hold anything against you.”

And then Emery did something unexpected. She thanked him—not for prosecuting her husband, but for coming around afterward to a position that contradicts McKay’s former actions in office, flouts the pronouncements of federal authorities, and veers left from standard conservative politics. Like Emery, McKay on this day had come to the legislature to speak in favor of a bill that proposed to legalize marijuana.

“Marijuana prohibition has failed at the federal level. It’s failed at the state level. It’s failed at the local level,” he told legislators.

In the following months, McKay would come to act more decisively on his newfound beliefs. He would join a coalition—one that includes Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, travel guru Rick Steves, state Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson (who sponsored the legislative bill McKay testified for), and ACLU drug-policy director Alison Holcomb—that has since put forward a legalization initiative.

Despite the cluster of well-known names, it was McKay’s participation that made headlines. According to Tom Angell, a spokesperson for the national group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, McKay is likely the highest-ranking law-enforcement official, present or past, ever to come out in favor of marijuana legalization.

Emery likens McKay’s epiphany to that of “soldiers coming back from the war in Vietnam”—McKay’s war, of course, being the war on drugs. But that’s not the only battle McKay has fought in recent years. In 2006, he was one of nine U.S. attorneys fired by the Bush administration in a crass display of partisanship that blew up into a national scandal.

“I was deeply affected by it,” McKay says now. And he has changed in ways that go beyond his thinking on marijuana.

A couple of years ago, in a little-noticed speech given at Whitman College in Walla Walla, McKay announced that he was leaving the Republican Party. “It is painful in one sense to walk away,” he said.

In another sense, he seems liberated. Now a Seattle University professor with a part-time gig at the law firm run by his brother, Mike McKay, also a former U.S. attorney, he still has time to travel the world—recent destinations, for both fun and legal projects, have included Ireland, the Eastern European republic of Georgia, and Rwanda. “Ever since John left the U.S. attorney’s office, he’s gotten tanner and he never wears a tie anymore,” joked Leigh Winchell, a top agent for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, during a visit to McKay’s classroom earlier this month.

McKay also says he made a decision upon leaving office: “I would speak out on issues as long as anyone wanted to listen.” That includes offering startlingly frank criticism of the Bush administration he once served.

“I can’t quite figure it out,” says Pramila Jayapal, executive director of the immigrant-advocacy group OneAmerica. Having clashed with him when McKay was U.S. attorney, she says she’s had much more simpatico conversations with him of late: “I could see that either he was shifting his views, or they were coming into focus more. I’m not sure which.”

Read the entire article at Seattle Weekly