Sweet marijuana smoke tumbles down the steps from “the Vapor Lounge,” a corner of Marc Emery’s bookstore where customers toke up at will.
“We get high with everybody,” Emery says, shrugging. “This is a pilgrimage spot, and people come here from all over the world. We get high.”
So were the seeds he used to keep in a case in the store, with exotic names like Afghan Dream and Chemo Grizzly. So was the booming business he ran, complete with glossy seed catalogues describing the subtle and sublime nuances of his varieties. (“Nebula: Fruity flavor and scent. Transcendental buzz. Harvest outdoor.”) So, for that matter, are the other marijuana businesses that have sprouted up in the block around his Vancouver bookstore. The street is nicknamed “Vansterdam,” with pot-hazy cafes, headshops filled with pipes and bongs, and neon signs advertising illegal seed sales.
Until recently, nobody much cared, it seemed. The police hadn’t bothered to come around for eight years. Before that, they busted Emery for seed sales and raided him four times. But he just got fined — once with “a nice speech from the judge saying what a nice person I was and how marijuana probably shouldn’t be illegal,” Emery says — and the police stopped trying.
In truth, Emery hated being ignored. He tried to stir up notoriety. Every year, he filled out his income taxes listing his occupation as “Marijuana Seed Vendor,” paying heftily and honestly, he says, on his multimillion-dollar business. The Canadian Revenue Service never questioned him.
He told the Canada post office he was getting and sending his seeds through the mail. They never stopped delivery. He started the B.C. Marijuana Party, fielded 79 candidates in 2001, and ran repeatedly for local and federal offices. He never won.
He broadcast “Pot-TV” on the Internet, entertained politicians, and openly funded marches, lawsuits and marijuana-legalization drives from Arizona to Israel to Washington, D.C.
When it was too quiet at home, he would go somewhere to rattle up a pro-pot demonstration. He would light up a fat joint in front of a police station, daring the cops to arrest him.
Twenty-one times they did. Usually he got off, or was released after a night in jail, or fined. His longest stretch was 61 days in jail in 2004, ordered by a Saskatoon judge clearly irked at Emery’s in-your-face apologia. No big deal, Emery says. He read the Bible behind bars.
Then came the DEA.
Emery figured something was up when a strange young woman pestered him to buy 10 pounds of pot. He refused. She bought some seeds at his store, asked for tips about how to hide them to go to the States, and left.
Eight days later, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents and Vancouver police tromped into his store, ordered the customers out, taped paper over the windows and began hauling out computers and files. Emery, on the other side of Canada to speak near Halifax at the Atlantic Hemp Festival, was grabbed by six plainclothes policemen as he left a restaurant.
Emery is “one of the attorney general’s most wanted international drug trafficking targets,” the DEA in Washington crowed on July 29, 2005, announcing an extradition request for Emery and two employees. Emery’s bust, the DEA said, was “a significant blow not only to the marijuana trafficking trade but also to the marijuana legalization movement.”
And he thought trying to change the law was legal, Emery muses.
So did lots of other Canadians, it turned out. Emery’s arrest for extradition on U.S. “drug kingpin” charges, carrying a minimum sentence of 10 years to life in prison, outraged many in Canada. They resented the long reach of America’s law and what they saw as the United States’ fevered preoccupation with pot.
“They need to leave our country alone,” complained a letter to the editor in the London (Ontario) Free Press. “If we wanted to prosecute Emery we would, but it is not worth our time and money.”
“Marc’s business was known to police and every level of government,” intoned a columnist in the Vancouver Province. To arrest him now “is petty and dishonest.”
Todd Greenberg, the assistant U.S. attorney handling the case in Seattle, says Canada’s apparent tolerance of Emery’s seed business does not make the U.S. bid to prosecute him unfair.
“What Canada does or does not do is not particularly relevant to us,” he says. “We are prosecuting him for what he did in our country — distributing millions and millions of marijuana seeds in the United States. When someone does that, the United States has the obligation to enforce our laws whether that person is physically located here or overseas.”
Greenberg says the charges brought by a federal grand jury followed an 18-month investigation in which DEA agents repeatedly found Marc Emery’s seeds at the root of illegal marijuana “grow ops.” He insists Emery’s legalization campaigns did not affect the charges.
That sounds hollow to Bruce Mirken, a spokesman for the Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project that Emery says he helped finance (contributors are confidential, the organization says). The DEA’s public boast to have dealt a blow to “the legalization movement” showed its hand, Mirken says.
“This is a democracy. We are supposed to be able to talk about whether our laws make any sense.
“Year after year they roll out ad campaigns that attempt to demonize marijuana,” Mirken notes. “They consider it the number one drug threat in America. That always struck us as bizarre.”
If the DEA tries to demonize marijuana, Emery runs a multimedia juggernaut to sanctify it. In addition to his irreverent Internet site, his Cannabis Culture magazine comes out every other month, a slick magazine chockablock with advertisements by seed vendors and hydroponics suppliers, articles on growing lush and potent plants, and even a “pot puzzler” crossword. He says he distributes 75,000 copies.
Emery’s bookstore is a cheerful dispensary for books and magazines on marijuana, bongs and pipes of every conceivable design, T-shirts, pot cookbooks, grinders, vaporizers, mushroom spores, and hemp clothing.
And then there is Emery himself. At 48, he looks more like a Young Republican than a stoner who calls himself the Prince of Pot. As often as not, he is in a coat and tie, with neatly combed hair, an earnest expression, with a good sound bite for the TV. He has been a soccer coach and a foster parent. Married, divorced and soon to remarry — to Jodie Giesz-Ramsay, 21, who transcribed his jailhouse musings and now helps edit his magazine.
He talks with a machine-gun style unmellowed by his admitted custom of a daily joint or two. He compares himself to Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. He had to apologize last year for calling a federal minister a “Nazi,” and he won no PR points when he spat on a policeman during a 2000 arrest of one of his employees.
Emery’s life is the limelight. For 17 years, he ran a used-book store in Ontario, and publicly challenged a business fee, his town’s bid for the 1991 Pan American Games, its Sunday shopping laws and pornography laws. In 1990 he flouted the prohibition against selling High Times magazine, then banned as “illicit drug literature.” He helped win that battle, getting the law overturned, and found his calling in the marijuana movement.
He wound up in British Columbia, a tolerant corner of a tolerant country. The official statistics agency of Canada says 45 percent of Canadians over age 15 have used marijuana. Possession and use is legal for medical purposes, and the former Liberal government tried to make possession of pot a matter of a small fine.
The legislation did not pass, but the laws on marijuana and sales of seeds are often overlooked. Until his arrest in July, Emery says only two people had ever been prosecuted for selling seeds, and both had simply been fined.
So Emery sold and sold. He accepted seed orders of the 534 varieties listed in his catalogue or on the Internet only with money orders that could not be easily traced. He got and sent seeds through the Canadian Postal Service, and then destroyed the records, he says.
“I sold millions of seeds proudly to people all over the world,” and perhaps 70 percent of them were mailed to the United States, he concedes. “Everything the DEA said is correct — except I don’t buy the charge that I’m poisoning children of America.”
Emery says he did it all for the movement, not for profit. He claims to have funneled more than $3 million to marches, candidates, lawsuits and ballot drives over a decade. He says he paid taxes and kept very little. He lives modestly in his fiancee’s apartment. He doesn’t own a car or a house, investments or fancy jewelry, he says.
Emery will get a judicial hearing in Canada later this year. The Canadian justice minister in the new conservative government could block the extradition, but he is a tough-talking former prosecutor and Emery acknowledges his chances are “slim odds indeed.”
“In the U.S, I have every confidence I would get a minimum of 30 years,” Emery says in an interview in the basement of his bookstore. “I’ll get a longer sentence than I’d get in Canada for multiple murder, for something no one in Canada has ever gone to jail for.”
Here is the twist: Emery welcomes it. Almost.
“I’m interested in whatever would legalize pot fastest,” he says. “Part of me believes that going to jail will accelerate that process. And part of me believes that if I die in jail it will accelerate it even faster.”
That is as much for Emery’s devotion to the spotlight as devotion to the cause, he concedes.
“I’m very interested to see what happens to me, because I think I am a person of destiny,” he says, with no trace of modesty. “I haven’t been fearful since the moment I was arrested. I just felt my time has finally come. . . .
“I’ve already got this grand-scale epic going in my head. I am out to destroy the DEA and defeat them. And they are out to destroy me.”
? 2006 The Washington Post Company