American Hands in the Canadian Pot

Most Canadians think pot should be legalized, but we just can’t seem to muster much outrage over its prohibition. Even students, well known for their love of hedonism and their hatred of “The Man”, often dismiss the issue as marginal and sophomoric.

In short, nearly everyone with a bone of sense in their bodies realizes the glaring contradictions and sheer absurdity of marijuana prohibition, but for the progressively-minded, it can seem like a distraction from the “real” issues.

Marc Emery disagrees. Of course, as a man on the verge of serving hard time in a U.S. prison for distributing marijuana, he has reason to take legalization a bit more seriously than most. But his arguments for the issue’s importance rest on much more than personal interest. He has cited the U.S.-led “war on drugs” as one of the most important issues facing North Americans today, positioning it in a constellation of other issues like the impact of Christian fundamentalism on the continent’s politics, class and race warfare, and personal liberty.

Whether Emery is a martyr (like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Gandhi, comparisons he’s fond of invoking) or a blowhard is largely up for debate. It’s tempting to say he’s both. Like Gandhi’s, his life is an intriguing mix: an appealing political philosophy rooted in direct action, coupled with some very odd, sometimes off-putting opinions and behaviour.

Emery began what has become a long and distinguished shit-disturbing career in London, Ontario in the 1980s. His first brush with the law came in 1988, when he served four days in jail for keeping his bookstore open on Sundays. He also made a habit of stocking the store with banned material, going so far as to sell ‘High Times’ magazine on the steps of London’s police station. It’s interesting to note that shopping on the Christian Sabbath and the sale of pro-pot literature were both legalized within a few years of Emery’s actions (in Ontario, at least).

In 1994, after moving to Vancouver, Emery started ‘Hemp BC’, a store selling marijuana seeds and paraphernalia – a “cannabis superstore,” depicted in all of its surreal glory in the CBC documentary ‘Prince of Pot: The U.S. vs. Marc Emery’. He founded the magazine Cannabis Culture and the internet show Pot-TV. After a couple of raids by Vancouver police in the mid-1990s, he moved his seed business online.

He went mostly unmolested by police during the next decade, as most seed and paraphernalia vendors in Canada typically do. He funnelled the profits from his ventures into marijuana legalization efforts. “I’ve always promised people: when you send me the money, you get the seeds, we pay our suppliers, and whatever’s left over, we use it to subvert the political system,” he explains.

His attempts to subvert the system included bids for the Vancouver mayorship and the federal legislature. Emery usually received 3 to 4 percent of the vote in these contests, but that wasn’t the point – the press took notice, and it got people talking. All of his activity has made Emery into something of a cult figure in the marijuana sub-culture, and even brought him appearances on major media like the CBC, BBC, NPR, CNN, and 60 Minutes.

The government’s tacit acceptance of Emery’s activities (they accepted nearly $600,000 in taxes from his seed-selling business, which he identified as such on his tax forms) came to an abrupt halt in 2005. Why the sudden change of heart? It seems that Emery had attracted the attention of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). He was arrested for “Conspiracy to Distribute Marijuana” and “Conspiracy to Distribute Marijuana Seeds”, and subject to extradition and trial in the U.S.

What makes the DEA’s arrest of Emery especially suspect is a press release published soon afterward, which called his arrest “a significant blow… to the marijuana legalization movement… Hundreds of thousands of dollars of Emery’s illicit profits are known to have been channeled to marijuana legalization groups active in the United States and Canada. Drug legalization lobbyists now have one less pot of money to rely on.”

The DEA’s pot puns leave something to be desired. But more importantly, the press release makes explicit the fact that Emery’s importance to the U.S. government lies not in his illegal activities (which are not discussed) but in his legal “propaganda” in favour of marijuana legalization. Emery’s place as the sole Canadian on a list of the U.S. Attorney General’s most-wanted drug traffickers would seem to confirm this – is Emery really more dangerous than the Hell’s Angels, or dealers of Heroin, Crystal Meth, or Cocaine?

Whether or not they support legalization, many Canadians see Emery’s arrest as a dangerous precedent for Canadian sovereignty (or the lack thereof). The Liberal, Green and New Democratic parties have all condemned the Conservative government’s handling of Emery’s case. “Canadian law enforcement officials have been aware of Mr. Emery’s activities for years yet have chosen not to penalize him,” said Green Party leader Elizabeth May. “By turning a blind eye to his activities, Canada has implicitly acknowledged that our marijuana laws are nothing short of ridiculous. The United States’ ideologically-motivated pursuit of Mr. Emery has gone far enough. We should either enforce our laws, or change them.”

Liberal justice critic, Marlene Jennings says Emery’s extradition sends the message to the U.S that “we’ll let you do the dirty work for us. And then we’ll stand by with our arms crossed.’”

The NDP, meanwhile, stated “we should not be sending individuals to face harsh punishment in another country when we have agreed as a society their actions are not worthy of prosecution here in Canada.”

Emery, who faces trial Monday, September 21st, is set to plead guilty to the charges against him as part of a plea bargain, which saw two of his coworkers let off with lighter sentences. He will likely be sentenced to five years in prison, of which at least the first part will be served in the U.S.


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Argus: What do you think accounts for the fact that marijuana is still illegal, despite popular support? Are politicians just scared of speaking out?

Emery: What we have in Canada is this unusual thing: a republican fundamentalist government that was elected with 35 percent of the voting public – about 16 percent of the total public – who are all from these rural areas where they’ve been steeped in Christianity. It’s really difficult dealing with fundamentalists, especially the kind we’re getting.

Stephen Harper just appointed Chris Somerville, who’s a premillenialist minister, [to the Canadian Mental Health Commission]. Those are the people who believe Jesus Christ is coming back in our lifetimes to take the chosen ones with him to heaven, and then the rest of us get cast into the lake of fire. When they have these beliefs, they don’t really care how good our health care system is in thirty years, or our schools, or the environment. Because, you know, we’re all going to get called to account before the great Lord by then, so why bother, right?

That very much worries me about the future of drug policy, because the whole point of prohibition [in the fundamentalist Christian paradigm]is to provide suffering for people who have this moral failing. Over forty-five years, billions of dollars [have been spent], 2 million Canadians and 14 million Americans have been criminalized for marijuana alone. What was the public benefit for those billions and billions of dollars and all of those people and their families hurt?

Argus: A lot of people are sympathetic to legalizing marijuana, but they see it as a side issue, as sophomoric…

Emery: Well, that’s because they don’t have any trouble getting the drugs they want at the price they’re comfortable paying. Being an [anti-prohibition] advocate is about providing for a decent, safe, honest social system… it’s not about getting high. The problem is that most people who are sophisticated have the money and the access to whatever they want, so they don’t think it’s such a problem, because they’re not the ones being arrested.

Most people in the marijuana legalization movement don’t get out and vote, because they don’t think it does any good. That’s a really big mistake, because our opponents do get out and vote, and they influence the elections a lot. 80 percent of people over 55 vote in presidential and federal elections in the United States, whereas 80 percent of people in their twenties do not vote. We’re being outflanked by prohibitionists, who tend to be older and rural. People who live in the cities tend to be educated and cynical, so they don’t go vote, and it really hurts us.

Argus: Another interesting contradiction is that a lot of the people who identify with your struggle are NDP supporters, a lot of them would profess themselves as socialists – whereas you are very much revolted by socialism and statism. So I wonder how you reconcile that, that a lot of your support would be ideologically opposed to you in many ways.

Emery: Oh, for sure. But there are two different objectives running on parallel tracks. One is myself the idealist: I have a vision of the world, a libertarian state of being where everybody is consenting and cooperative, and that’s what I always advocate and promote. But who I work with regarding political parties is only geared to one thing: that is, who is going to bring in legislation that will reduce the number of people in jail? Whoever promises to work towards that, I help.

We ally with the people who are going to be most sympathetic, so that means allying with the Green party, sometimes with the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois, and very rarely but occasionally with the Liberal party. Typically, our biggest enemy is always the Conservative party in Canada or the Republicans in the U.S. The big caveat there is really the exception of Ron Paul, who’s the greatest politician we’ve seen in a century, and who of course totally wants to repeal the war on drugs and prohibition.

Argus: A lot of people are skeptical of the importance of the issue. Can you explain how marijuana legalization fits into a wider set of issues or a wider struggle?

Emery: When you consider the hypocrisy of our society… all of the things that kill people are legal and available: alcohol, tobacco, prescription drugs, peanuts, deli meats, government-approved water coming out of the tap in Walkerton, Ontario – I mean, Christ, table salt is a big killer. And yet, marijuana doesn’t kill anybody, won’t give you lung cancer, will prevent you from ever getting Alzheimer’s disease as long as you have your three puffs a day… all of these incredible things, and yet it’s illegal.

The people who make, sell, and consume marijuana go to jail, but the people who manufacture alcohol, tobacco, prescription drugs, and all of those other killers (fast cars, guns, sugar, you name it), they don’t go to jail. So what’s the explanation? There’s only one: so that we’re made to suffer. It’s literally a biblical type of Inquisition, whereby we’re suffering because we’re the free thinkers; we’re not buying into this one-book dogma, this book of the bible. The people who believe in the bible try to wrestle control over the other book, the book of the law, so that things are viewed in their Christian fundamentalist paradigm. But it doesn’t achieve any social benefit, there’s no public good that comes out of it.

Argus: If you look at a Canada with legalized marijuana, how would it be different?

Emery: If they did it appropriately, marijuana would be produced legally in massive greenhouses under license by the government. It would cost about $20 an ounce, so about 65 cents wholesale per gram [up to twice that much with tax]. It would be sold in places like Starbucks. Marijuana in a legal environment would be very inexpensive – that would be the only way you could keep the black market out of it, which is the incentive to the government to legalize it in the first place. No government really ever understands civil rights or the people’s right to do something. So you can’t use that as an example, because politicians don’t run for office to give us our freedom, they run for office to control us with their rules and regulations – that’s why they’re fascinated with the calling.

Argus: You don’t think there are some altruistic people who get into politics?

Emery: No.

Argus: None whatsoever?

Emery: No, not really… See, altruism is the worst reason to get into it, because those are the people who think they want to help others. But what they really want to do is be a meddler, because it’s their vision of help that’s going to be imposed upon people. And for that matter, in Canada, [MPs] are so whipped by their leader that it won’t even matter what they think up anyway; It’s a dictatorship out of the executive offices of each party. So it doesn’t matter who you vote for: that person, when elected, is very compromised by the party structure that we have.

Argus: Like with a lot of causes, there are many people who quietly agree with you but aren’t quite sure what they might be able to do. Let’s say somebody’s sitting around Thunder Bay and he or she agrees with you, what can they get out and do, realistically?

Emery: The first thing you can do is that you have to come out of the closet, but that involves some degree of risk. If you can’t, say because you’re growing or selling pot, then make sure you give money to people who are doing the work for those causes. Go to the rallies, absorb the energy, and see what you can do.

Right now, everybody in Canada should be calling their senator to tell them to vote against bill C-15, because that bill will send thousands of us to jail. If it passes the senate, we’re in big trouble. People who are growing pot (just five plants or more) in a rented place are going to get 9 months mandatory minimum jail time. If they’ve got kids at home, it’s a year minimum. I don’t know how that’s supposed to help the kids, it’s insane!

And make sure they get out to vote next time! Most people who smoke pot are very enlightened, and they won’t get out to vote because they get jaded and cynical about whether politics achieves anything. Well, then they don’t vote, and then they let our enemies determine the issues that are going to be affecting us.

Argus: One of the things Noam Chomsky says is that governments are very selective in which drugs they make illegal, that they use it as a tool of social control. He sees it as a class thing. Would you agree with that?

Emery: That’s certainly true, but there’s a racial element to it as well. All the things that were Western European are legal, like alcohol or prescription drugs. But anything that comes from foreign cultures, like khat from Somalia, marijuana from India, opium from China, or coca coming from Central and Latin America – all of those things are demonized and made illegal, because all of the people associated with them are necessarily being demonized and made illegal. Just in the same way that we’ve always tried to keep Chinese people out of North America, we try to keep their drugs out of North America. It’s the same with Mexicans and Hispanics – they’ve been trying to keep those people out of America, and they try to keep their drugs out of America. What we find is that all Western forms of inebriation are acceptable, even though they’re the most dangerous ones with the highest mortality rates. Because they’re Western, they’re familiar and we don’t fear them the same way we fear the less harmful foreign drugs. That’s a very big component of [marijuana’s illegality].

– Article from The Argus on September 23, 2009