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Marc Emery, Martyr for the Cause

He's portrayed as a greedy kook, but I know a true crusader.

Brian Preston 11 Aug
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It’s a strange feeling to dig out something you wrote years ago and read it with fresh eyes. I’m looking at a story from Rolling Stone, April 1998, called Vancouver’s Pot Experiment. “In the Nineties,” I wrote, “Vancouver has been home to a thriving community of marijuana activists—idealistic hippies who believe in hemp’s power to save the world. But it took the arrival of Marc Emery, a bluff, energetic entrepreneur with a history of getting involved in hot button issues, to push Vancouver into its new incarnation: “Vansterdam.”

The editors at Rolling Stone added this for the ‘deck,’ the summary of the story that goes under the headline: “Canada’s largest West Coast city is testing a newly tolerant attitude toward marijuana. Will this hail a common-sense drug policy north of the border, or is it just a Prague Spring for pot activists?”

Seems like the Prague Spring lasted seven years. In the end the metaphorical equivalent of Russian tanks rolled in and crushed the revolution by crushing one man: Marc Emery. Even the website for Cannabis Culture, the magazine Emery sponsors (it sells 60,000 paper copies each issue, only 2,000 by subscription-- the other 58,000 are mostly plucked from newsstands in small and medium sized towns in the American heartland), reacted by grimly tolling the bell for the end of an era:

If the DEA wants to shut down ALL marijuana seed retailers in the world, and screw a lot of growers, for sure they can do so. They have the power, they have the intent, and they have the guns.

It is very likely that the DEA, in alliance with the worldwide police state, is monitoring every website related to freedom, including cannabis seed websites. The US and Holland just entered into an anti-marijuana agreement. In the case of Marc Emery, the US ordered Canadian police to enforce American drug laws. If the American drug warriors can do all that, they can do anything, including ruining the ability of people to safely buy marijuana seeds from internet or in person retailers in the same manner they'd buy DVD's. It was good while it lasted, eh? We're not sure yet, but those days may be over.

'It's gotta be legal’

It was a heady run, though. I still have the transcripts from my interviews with Emery in 1998, and much lengthier transcripts from talks with him in 2000 for my book Pot Planet, commissioned by the American publisher Grove Press. In late 1997, the Vancouver police had raided Emery’s store, Hemp BC, and seized a quarter million dollars in seeds and paraphernalia. The Crown was dragging its feet about bringing the case to trial (eventually they stayed the charges, but never returned the goods, and it’s widely held that these seeds were passed along to the Flin Flon growers of Health Canada’s medical marijuana).

Emery was eager for his day in court. He told me, “My idea is that it’s gotta be legal by the time I go to court. That’s my target date, then it’ll be redundant. Or maybe I’ll get my Howard Rourke [the hero of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead] moment in the sun, where I tell the jury, yes I did it, I'm proud of it, and here's why I did it, find me not guilty even though I did it. You can tell the jury to nullify the law, a judge can’t tell them and your lawyer can’t tell them, so I’ll have to fire my lawyer and take over my case for the summation bit where I tell them, find me not guilty even though I did it. And let's face it, 63 per cent of people favour legalization, what's the odds that with a jury of twelve there won't be one guy who'll never vote for conviction, they need a Henry Fonda to convince the rest that they should nullify the law.”

Rent Twelve Angry Men if you don’t get the Henry Fonda reference—Emery told me it’s his favourite film of all time.

Abrasive straight shooter

It all sounds so naïve and utopian in hindsight. But you never know, Emery may get his Nelson Mandela moment, may get to make that speech in an American courtroom in Seattle someday, before they lock him up for the rest of his natural life. For now he’s giving jailhouse interviews where he compares himself to Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Because I’m considered something of an expert on the subject of pot, a lot of people have been asking my opinion of Marc Emery. Here’s what I’ve noticed: faced with a genuine revolutionary, someone willing to make serious sacrifices for his cause, the mainstream Canadian reaction is, “Does he have a complex or something? Dude must have a screw loose.” Or, “I hear he’s ‘arrogant’ and ‘egotistical.’”

I’m a big fan of Marc Emery. He’s a straight shooter, opinionated and abrasive, a mouthy bastard, and should probably not ever have attempted to form a political party around the marijuana issue, where his libertarian views on gun control and health care (old people shouldn’t waste so much of our resources, after 70 they should refuse medical intervention and just “die with dignity”) rankled the usual gang of lefty joint-sharing spiritualists most attracted to the weed.

He had issues with women, namely he wanted to sleep with as many as possible, something he joked about. I remember some hilarious advice he gave me once, a long, salacious and comic riff on threesomes: a man can’t hope to keep two women happy, but a woman can easily satisfy two men. In his younger days he’d spent many Caribbean vacations as the third, helping older married couples put some zest back in the bedroom.

The Canadian media doesn’t seem to know what to make of him at all. “Crusader, Drug Lord, Martyr, or Huckster?” That was the Globe and Mail attempting to probe his personality. Verdict: he’s a “rabble-rouser,” which is family newspaper-speak for shit disturber. Anyone who is a shit disturber is immediately of questionable sanity in this lame country of ours. We are, for the most part, a pathetic bunch of sheep.

Colby Cosh put his finger directly on our national disease in a recent column in the National Post. I quote: “It horrifies me to imagine that Emery -- whether you think him jackass or saint -- should end up in a federal pen down south just because we neglected to lock him up in one of our own institutions. It would leave him in the position of facing a worse punishment precisely as a consequence of our collective national uncertainty that he did anything objectionable. That's not only injustice - it borders on plain madness. (Some would say the same of Canada itself.)”

Freedom fighters

Writing Pot Planet gave me a chance to meet not only Emery but the two other great marijuana freedom fighters of our time: Dennis Peron, the man behind the California initiative to legalize medical marijuana, and Ben Dronkers, a Dutch coffeeshop and seed company owner in his fifties who was first jailed for smoking a joint when he was eighteen, and who has been arrested more than eighty times in the more than thirty years since.

Of all the interviews from the twelve countries I traveled to for Pot Planet, it’s Dronker’s exasperated words that have stuck most strongly with me: “I’ve learned to respect the police, because I used to hate them,” he told me. “They beat me, they locked me up, they put me in a straightjacket. I hated them for sure, but I understand they don’t know any better. I’m lucky I can put it aside. Probably I was a pain in the ass to them.”

He sighed a heavy, tired sigh and stared into the candle on the table. “It’s not nice, because I’m still a pain in the ass, and I don’t want to be a pain in the ass anymore. I want what I do to be accepted.”

Everyone has this idea that Holland’s liberal cannabis policy is due to enlightened legislators. That’s bullshit. It’s due to people like Ben Dronkers willing to stand up and be arrested eighty times because he knows that smoking a joint or growing a plant should not be a punishable offence. The majority of Canadians believe the same thing. But somehow we let foreign drug warriors march in and arrest one of our own.

A major problem for aging pot activists is that young people think the battle has been won, and aren’t prepared to fight it again if it comes to that. So it’s left to people like Emery and Dronkers and Peron, people who should be resting on their laurels and passing the torch, to fight the good fight yet again.

That’s how Emery can end up saying that if he has to rot for the rest of this life in an American jail, he’ll do it. At a certain point you have invested so much of your life in the struggle, and come so close to believing liberation and legalization is just around the corner, that you can’t surrender. Martyrdom, that most un-Canadian of actions, becomes the only option.

Who’s next on the DEA list?

I was watching David Letterman last night, mainstream American television. Bill Maher was on, saying, “Let’s face it, the Christian Right—by which I mean the United States government—is, to use President Bush’s word, ‘emboldened.’” These are Old Testament Christians—-slay thine enemy types-- and they’ve turned the dogs of the DEA loose upon the world.

Let’s face it: the DEA are bastards. They’ll do anything to keep anyone from enjoying the simple pleasure of a cannabis high, a recreational pastime that the Canadian court system has accepted is no more harmful than tobacco or alcohol.

Consider this: Bayer, the huge pharmaceutical multinational, is marketing a prescription drug called Sativex in Canada. It’s nothing more than a pure plant extract of marijuana. It’s been approved by Health Canada, and any doctor can write a prescription. It’s intended for sufferers of multiple sclerosis. But if one of those MS patients should want to take their medicine to the States, guess what? They’ll be charged with importing marijuana. The US Supreme Court has ruled marijuana has no medical value. The Canadian courts, and Bayer, know better.

Can’t wait to see the DEA go after Bayer, Canada’s biggest distributor of cannabis.

Victoria writer Brian Preston is author of the novel Too Many Georges, published in serial form on The Tyee, as well as Pot Planet: Adventures in Global Marijuana Culture  [Tyee]

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