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Marc Emery; a call to finally end marijuana prohibition

18 August 2014

The times, they are a-changin’, even for the Grey Lady. That bastion of old-school journalism, the New York Times, has accepted its first advertisement advocating the legalization of marijuana, placed by Leafly, which calls itself “the world's largest cannabis information community”. This development comes hot on the heels of a six-part series appearing in The Paper of Record calling for an end to marijuana prohibition in the United States. And Marc Emery just might be responsible for the whole thing.

Emery is a Canadian marijuana activist who was recently released from a US federal prison in Mississippi. His crime? He sold marijuana seeds in Canada. How he ended up in a federal prison in the United States is quite a story, and it underscores the schizophrenia of current US political thought on marijuana. At a time when states across the nation are enacting laws that allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes, or even decriminalizing its recreational use, Emery’s jail sentence is a jarring anomaly. Hell, two states (Washington and Colorado) have even legalized pot, and here’s this Canadian guy doing five years in the federal pen in Mississippi for selling seeds in Canada? In the immortal words of Vince Lombardi, what the hell is going on out here? The involvement of the United States government is odd enough, since Emery’s actions all took place in Canada. What is even more frightening, though, is the patently political motivation of the US Drug Enforcement Agency and the quest of DEA officials to silence legitimate political speech calling for the reform of US marijuana laws. As a Canadian citizen, of course, Emery has no true First Amendment rights, but those on the southern side of the 48th parallel sure as hell do – and the DEA’s actions against Emery were aimed squarely at the political freedoms of US citizens to petition their government for a redress of grievances. Read on.

Marc Emery returning to Canada as a free man (Image Courtesy of CTV Vancouver News)

Marc Emery's Political Involvement

Marc Emery’s journey to the Yazoo City medium-security prison is a strange one, but all in all not surprising given Emery’s previous activities and frequent run-ins with Canadian authorities. Emery has been an entrepreneur since childhood: At the age of nine he started a mail-order business buying and selling stamps, and soon after that he started a similar business with comic books. At the age of 17 he bought a used book store. His political activism started shortly thereafter, and it didn’t start with protesting marijuana prohibition.

Emery fought extradition to the US for a few years, but finally relented and pled guilty to a single count of “conspiracy to manufacture marijuana” – an absurd charge that shows exactly how laughable drug laws are.

Emery was already politically aware at an early age. He had helped his father campaign for Pierre Trudeau in 1968, when Emery was just ten years old, and he has been involved in various ways in somewhat traditional political activities such as running for office his entire life (this article will gloss over most of those political activities, although it is worth noting that Emery has consistently embraced libertarianism in one form or another). But his political involvement soon took on a different look as well. Emery's bookstore was located in downtown London, Ontario. Also located in London was the "London Downtown Business Association" – an entity that had been in the habit of collecting mandatory fees from downtown merchants to use for beautification and other "worthy" programs. Emery didn't appreciate having to contribute to these programs, and he fought for three years against the Association, refusing to pay their assessments. Also, during a garbage haulers’ strike in 1976, Emery put together an emergency garbage service in London and served the community for three weeks, a move that might have been appreciated by his fellow citizens, but it that irritated both the chaps at City Hall and the fellas who ran the union that called the strike. A twofer, as it were. Over the years, Emery thumbed his nose at governmental overreach every time he got the chance. This might have been a result of his devotion to the work of the philosopher Ayn Rand, whose books Emery began to read in the late 1970s. Emery has said that reading Rand’s works changed his entire life and worldview. He told one interviewer that he was "Howard Roark personified," alluding to the architect-hero of one of Rand's best-known books, “The Fountainhead”. He told another interviewer "All my actions since that time have been based on the philosophy I learned by reading her works."

Pro-freedom Philosophy

He certainly seems to have taken Rand’s anti-government, pro-freedom philosophy to heart. After a nearly-unanimous Canadian Parliament banned literature promoting, encouraging, or advocating "the production, preparation or consumption of illicit drugs" in 1988, Emery began selling books and magazines about marijuana at his London bookstore, and even distributed copies of High Times magazine in front of the London police headquarters. Also in 1988, Emery actually spent four days in jail for the heinous crime of opening his shop in violation of Ontario's silly laws prohibiting shopping on Sundays. Eight weeks in a row. Emery’s next scrape with the law was in 1991, when he was convicted for selling copies of the 1989 rap album “As Nasty As They Wanna Be” by 2 Live Crew, which the Ontario provincial authorities had declared to be obscene. All of these acts of defiance are completely consistent with a picture of a man who has a firm idea of what government’s limits should be, even if the government itself doesn’t agree. But it was Emery’s interest in marijuana that really started to attract attention. Emery’s conviction for selling the 2 Live Crew discs earned him a year on probation, but immediately after the sentencing he resumed selling banned materials, in the form of marijuana-related literature and High Times magazine (again). Emery sponsored a challenge to the Canadian ban on such publications, and in 1994 an Ontario judge overturned the ban. By that time, Emery had tired of London and had sold his business and moved to Vancouver. He opened a shop called “Hemp BC” which sold marijuana-related merchandise. Emery then began importing and wholesaling pipes, bongs and other pot-related items in violation of the Canadian Criminal Code. He also encouraged other people to open "hemp stores" across the Great White North. Over the next decade or so, Emery had numerous dust-ups with the law, all centering around his pro-pot activities, with varying degrees of success, failure, and notoriety. In one rather amusing instance, Emery was convicted of spitting on a police officer who was helping to remove protestors from in front of his store. Emery later explained the incident by saying "I was found guilty and fined two hundred dollars. My defence was that it was justifiable as they were assaulting my employees. We have video tape of them kicking, shoving objects at, using a truncheon, and pulling on the hair of David Malmo-Levine and Ian Roberts. I wanted to show my disgust in a non-violent way, and to draw the police toward me and away from my employees."

Selling Marijuana Seeds

He also paid over $600,000 in taxes from his businesses to Canadian authorities, something nobody seems to want to mention.

As early as 1994, Emery had been selling marijuana seeds from his Vancouver shop, eventually by mail-order (he was already well versed in mail order commerce, starting with his stamp business as a child), and he was even featured in a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal in late 1995. Over the next decade or so, as was certainly to be expected, Emery faced a number of legal issues related to selling the seeds. He paid fines, he spent a few nights in jail, he was forced to move his business, nothing of any real significance. And all the while, he became more famous – or infamous, depending on who was making the assessment. During this time, Emery began publishing “Cannabis Culture” magazine, a periodical devoted to all things marijuana, and contributed hefty sums of money to efforts to reform marijuana laws in various locations. He also paid over $600,000 in taxes from his businesses to Canadian authorities, something nobody seems to want to mention. Well over half a million dollars in tax revenue from a guy who sells bongs and pot seeds? The hell you say. But it was the hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions that seems to have been his real sin, as far as US authorities were concerned. The last straw might well have come in November of 2002. John Walters, then the Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, came to Vancouver to deliver a speech urging Canada to embrace the so-called “War on Drugs”. Emery purchased a table for the event, invited other local marijuana activists, and heckled Walters mercilessly during the speech. Whether that incident had anything directly to do with what happened afterwards is impossible to say, but some coincidences are too coincidental to be coincidences. Soon after the speech, the United States got involved in the Marc Emery case. Up to that time, Canadian authorities had not succeeded in shutting down Emery’s business, or worse, his political activities. The best they could do to that point was some meaningless convictions and a few thousand dollars in fines. When the DEA got involved, though, the stakes got higher. And after investigation, the United States got him on charges of selling marijuana seeds into the US via his mail-order business. Eventually he was extradited to the US and charged with drug and money-laundering offenses that could have resulted in a life sentence upon conviction. A life sentence. For seeds. Emery fought extradition to the US for a few years, but finally relented and pled guilty to a single count of “conspiracy to manufacture marijuana” – an absurd charge that shows exactly how laughable drug laws are. He was sentenced to five years in federal prison. Happily, he was released and finally returned to Canada in August of 2014.

Ridiculousness of Marijuana Prohibition

The very man who prosecuted Marc Emery now supports the legalization of marijuana in the United States and Canada.

Everything in Marc Emery’s history, including the whole sordid affair involving United States authorities, shows exactly how ridiculous marijuana prohibition is. Further, the involvement of the DEA in investigating and prosecuting Marc Emery points out in undeniable fashion exactly what has happened to the rights guaranteed by our Constitution. Statements from US government authorities clearly establish that a major factor in US interest in the Emery case was Marc’s political activity and his funding of pro-marijuana reforms. In fact, one statement is almost unbelievable in what it reveals.

In a document that is remarkable both for its candor and for its insanity, Karen P. Tandy, who was head of the DEA at the time of Emery’s arrest, stated that taking Emery into custody was "a significant blow not only to the marijuana trafficking trade in the U.S. and Canada, but also to the marijuana legalization movement." The statement goes on to point out that since Emery had contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to legalization efforts, "Drug legalization lobbyists now have one less pot of money to rely on." In case you can’t believe it and need to see it with your own eyes, the entire Tandy statement can be found at Cannabis Culture. It certainly is no surprise to freedom-minded individuals that the United States government has indeed turned into “Fedzilla” over the past few decades. What is surprising, however, is that such a highly-placed representative of Fedzilla would ever admit that a criminal enforcement effort was based in large part on political activity protected by the First Amendment.

Once again, Marc Emery is a citizen of Canada and a subject of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and therefore has no true First Amendment rights. His funding of political activity in the United States, however, most certainly does invoke First Amendment tensions, and efforts of the federal government to shut down sources of funds used to underwrite political activity stands in direct opposition both the spirit and the letter of the Supreme Law of the Land. This cannot stand. Marijuana reform is one of those ideas whose time has come. In the US, 37 states and the District of Columbia have relaxed their laws on marijuana use and possession. Two states have even legalized recreational use of pot. And in a development whose irony is simply delicious, the very man who prosecuted Marc Emery, former U.S. attorney for the western district of Washington John McKay, now supports the legalization of marijuana in the United States and Canada.

The times, they are a-changin’. And we just might have Marc Emery to thank.

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