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The Strange, Seedy Case of Marc Emery

Facing life in a U.S. prison, the 'Prince of Pot' sparks an extradition war that could test the limits of the war on drugs -- and legalize pot in Canada at last.
 
 
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Looking back, Marc Emery says it was like a scene out of Bonnie and Clyde.

The publisher of Cannabis Culture magazine and Canada's leading marijuana rabble-rouser, Emery was sitting in Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia -- the Lawrencetown Restaurant, in fact -- getting himself together to speak at a legalization rally. It was July 29, 2005, and the second annual Atlantic Hemp Fest was already in full swing, with bands and speakers organized by Maritimers United for Medical Marijuana already entertaining a crowd of about 400-500 people.

Suddenly, the lunchtime crowd vanished. The air changed. "Then I notice the waitresses getting jittery, and oddly encouraging me to leave in an unfriendly way that you never find on the East Coast," Emery says.

Not connecting this weirdness to himself — he wasn't breaking any laws -- he paid his tab and walked outside to his car. Which, oddly, he found boxed in; ordinary-looking cars were right on his bumper in front and behind. As he stood there, looking around for whoever needed to move their cars, a large black man got out of another car parked nearby. Ever polite, Emery quipped, "Hello."

"Marc Emery?" said the man, not waiting for an answer, "you are under arrest --" This was a mild shock, even though Emery has intentionally had himself arrested 11 times since 1994 on pot-related charges as a form of protest.

The man Canadians call the "Prince of Pot" knew such arrests to be mostly pro forma exercises in his country, which he'd used to prove that pot was de facto legal there. But nothing prepared him for the remaining clauses of this stranger's brief proclamation. "— for extradition to the United States, on charges of Conspiracy to Manufacture Marijuana, Conspiracy to Distribute Marijuana Seeds, and Conspiracy to Engage in Money Laundering."

This was no exercise. Cars with flashing lights screeched to a halt all around him, and 10 members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police -- the Mounties -- swarmed him in full tactical gear and ski masks over their faces. As he spent the night in a Halifax holding tank, the reality hit him cold turkey: He wasn't under any charges in Canada, and never would be.

Canada's federal Justice Ministry didn't think his crime -- selling marijuana seeds to fund activist causes — was worth prosecuting. But it was the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) that had nailed him, and they'd also grabbed two of his comrades at Emery Seeds in Vancouver — Michelle Rainey-Fenkarek, 34, and Greg Williams, 50 — on the same charges. All three — now known as the "B.C. 3" - face the same sentences.

The DEA had reached across the border into Canada, exerting heavy pressure on that country's federal law enforcement, and were going to drag them all to a hellish federal prison in the United States. Possibly for life.

The conflicting attitudes regarding pot could not be framed in more stark terms: Canada, no charges; U.S., 10 years to life. Canadian response to the arrest has turned the spotlight back on the U.S. federal government's ruthless prosecution of marijuana users and activists. It also mirrors the conflict between the feds and the various states, like California, which have legalized pot for medical use.

The disparity between state laws and federal mandatory minimum sentences are often so huge that activists say they violate the 8th Amendment guarantee against disproportionate punishment. Emery Seeds is one of about 50 seed companies operating in Canada, most of which continue to operate today.

In her bizarre press release of July 29, DEA chief Karen Tandy left little doubt as to why they singled out Emery's operation. "Today's DEA arrest of Marc Scott Emery, publisher of Cannabis Culture magazine, and the founder of a marijuana legalization group -- is a significant blow not only to the marijuana trafficking trade in the U.S. and Canada, but also the marijuana legalization movement," it begins, adding: "Hundreds of thousands of dollars of Emery's illicit profits are known to have been channeled to marijuana legalization groups in the United States and Canada. Drug legalization lobbyists now have one less pot of money to rely on."

Last anyone checked, funding ballot initiatives wasn't illegal in the U.S., and this kind of hubris has threatened to turn Emery's extradition proceedings into a slugfest. Under treaty, the Canadians are bound to turn him over. But the Prince of Pot might prove the exception to the rule.

The Canadian press has erupted in a campaign of vitriol against the U.S. for targeting Emery, who was already a kind of national antihero for opening up the country's outdated censorship laws with Cannabis Culture and his British Columbia Marijuana Party Bookstore. Now he's morphing into a symbol of Canadian sovereignty.

Members of Parliament have taken up his case, angry over high-handed efforts by U.S. Drug Czar John Walters to force the Canadians to join the U.S.'s failed Drug War. The former mayor of Vancouver has lashed out. The Canucks are pissed. The U.S. government insists that it is not engaging in a "war on marijuana." But marijuana, it seems, is going to test the relationship between the U.S. and Canada.

Overgrowing the Government
One thing is very clear about Marc Emery: He definitely broke the law, and on both sides of the border. And he did it on purpose, in front of God and everyone else, making a point of calling attention to his lawbreaking activities in his magazine, on his celebrated web video channel, Pot-TV, and in the Canadian press. But where the Canadians saw an activist, the U.S. government evidently saw a guy with a target painted on his back.

"'Overgrowing the government,' that's my phrase for 10 years," Emery says by phone from the Cannabis Culture offices in Vancouver. "The idea is that we'd sell seeds, people would grow lots of pot, empower themselves by not needing to buy on the black market, by being self-sufficient in marijuana and medical marijuana. Hopefully, people would grow so much pot that the DEA could never eradicate it all, and it would be futile spending all that money. Then Americans would simply say, 'Well, why should we spend all this money when it's impossible to stop? We should legalize it.' That was the strategy on one hand. And then, from the money people sent me," he adds, "we would give that away to organizations and groups advocating peaceful democratic change and an end to the Drug War. So the money would be totally useful at both ends."

"You might want to get the press release from our office, as opposed to Karen Tandy's," says Todd Greenberg, Assistant U.S. Attorney from the Western District of Washington, distancing his office from the overzealous DEA chief, "because I want to emphasize this: He's entitled to publish his magazine. He's entitled to run for mayor, or do whatever the hell he wants with his Marijuana Party [chuckles]. It has nothing to do with this case. He's being prosecuted because he's a one-stop shop for large marijuana grows that we have busted throughout the U.S." And that's in every state in the union, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

Here's where Emery's unique political strategy becomes problematic. His enterprise is what Allen St. Pierre, a Washington, D.C.-based spokesman for the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws, or NORML, affectionately calls a "seed wrap."

Emery Seeds began in 1994, selling high-potency marijuana seeds via mail order and using his magazine and his well-made Internet site to hawk them to customers. Those sales are illegal in both the U.S. and in Canada. And business is good. A single marijuana plant might yield 4,000 to 5,000 seeds, which are sold for anywhere from $2 to $20 apiece. Do the numbers. They add up quick. He's been doing it for 11 years, and in 2003 alone, Emery estimates, the seeds pulled in about $2.2 million Canadian. But, apparently, Emery keeps almost none of it. He pays out $1 million a year to suppliers, he says, about $400,000 to support the magazine, the website, and to advertise (his last paid advertisement was in the San Francisco Chronicle , in June, for his "Medical Marijuana Pak"), and another $300,000 for staff. That leaves about $300,000 to $400,000. Which he gives away.

He even paid taxes on that money in Canada before giving it away, and on his revenue forms he marked his business as "Marijuana Seed Vendor." He says he doesn't own a car, a house, investments, or any property, and luckily all his ex-wives and his four adopted children are self-sufficient now.

"I gave away, over a period of 10-11 years, close to $4 million Canadian," Emery says now, "to various activists, organizations, ballot initiatives, politicians, political parties, conferences, rallies -- you name it."

That includes $19,000 for a medical marijuana ballot initiative in Arizona. And $7,000 for one in Alaska. Then $5,000 for one in Washington, D.C. He's tabulating this stuff now, but says his U.S. contributions total "probably no more than half a million."

He's also given loads of money to Canadian politicians and political parties — even when he was running for mayor or Parliament himself. "Politicians of every stripe both took my money and showed up at conferences to speak on legalizing marijuana," he notes. "Jack Layton, the leader of the New Democratic Party, came to my home 18 months ago and filmed an interview to be broadcast on Pot-TV. The mayor came to a conference that I put on with seed money last year called 'Beyond Prohibition 2004.' Every politician in Parliament had a subscription to our magazine for the last eight years. And in all that time, I never had a complaint from anybody about selling seeds."

Nobody in the U.S. has ever worked like this. In fact, says NORML's St. Pierre, we haven't seen anything like this since a cat known only as Neville first started selling seeds via mail order in the Netherlands in the 1980s. "Nobody has ever been as plotting and as pragmatic about trying to combine commerce, politics, and rabble-rousing, than Marc has," says St. Pierre. "He is a complex individual. In this country, the closest example are Yippies. But Marc has taken it further. Unlike a number of folks that are about enriching themselves personally, in a semi-Messianic way he's developed a wont to give as much as he can back towards the politics of changing the laws."

The U.S. Justice Department is unmoved by these facts. U.S. Attorney Greenberg says not only have they connected Emery Seeds to big commercial grows — more than just DIY medical marijuana patients — but Emery's website (now shut down) also offered all the other paraphernalia one would need to grow or smoke pot. "He would send 8- to 10-page instruction booklets on how to grow," says Greenberg. "Then he had a part of his business on the website called the Little Grow Shop. He sold the large apparatus to grow marijuana … plus lights, fans, fertilizer, irrigation-type systems."

Plus, he used the Internet to solicit worldwide. Any money that went across the Canadian border, in either direction, constitutes money laundering. Jeff Eig, spokesman for the DEA in Seattle, says he doesn't expect any problems getting Emery extradited out of Canada. "The bottom line is that he's facing three significant charges in federal court," Eig says. "He faces significant exposure to the law, facing in anywhere from 10 to 40 years, or up to life, on those charges."

Blame Canada!

"Oh, I'm outraged, I see this as a purely political maneuver by the U.S. government and the Drug Czar. It's political pressure," says Libby Davies, Member of Parliament -- the equivalent of a U.S. member of Congress -- from East Vancouver. Emery's bookstore office, where he sold the seeds, is near her district. "What is he guilty of -- selling marijuana seeds on the Internet. He's been doing that for over a decade, and no one in Canada has prosecuted him.

"There's not a shadow of a doubt in my mind that this is entirely politically motivated, and it is to back Canada into a corner," she adds, "sort of the old adage from Bush, 'Are you with us or are you agin' us?'"

Canada has been softening its laws regarding marijuana possession for years, and some of the most progressive harm reduction policy has been implemented in Vancouver. Davies backed heroin maintenance studies and helped create the country's first safe injection site for IV drug users there, where HIV and hepatitis were ballooning out of control.

The current mayor of Vancouver, Larry Campbell, has championed a "Four Pillars" drug strategy which prioritizes harm reduction, prevention, and treatment, using law enforcement specifically "targeting organized crime, drug dealing, drug houses," and "problem business involved in the drug trade." Drug users are not listed as targets, like they are in the U.S., where they are the focus of the overwhelming majority of prosecutions. Nor did "problem business" evidently include Emery Seeds. Campbell's office says it is not currently discussing the Emery case.

For several years, a federal bill to decriminalize marijuana possession has plodded through the Canadian Parliament, and U.S. Drug Czar John Walters has campaigned through the Great White North to try to squash it. In 2002, Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), chair of a key congressional drug-policy committee and infamous anti-pot crusader, told Toronto's Globe and Mail that Canada is free to make its own laws but passage of the decriminalization bill could cause Congress to tighten the border with Canada — thus threatening the flow of goods to that country's biggest trading partner.

These threats are not laughed off. There is a caucus within the ruling Liberal Party who believe Canada ought to listen to Walters. But many find his efforts there offensive. Former Vancouver Mayor Philip Owen told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in August that he met with Walters on one of his pro-Drug War tours in 2002, and called it "the most unsatisfactory meeting of my life. The pressure was intense."

"I feel that, politically, they cannot sanction the fact that Canada is taking a different perspective, and that we're much closer to a European model when it comes to drug policy reform," says MP Libby Davies. "I think there are a lot of Americans who would like to … adopt more of a Canadian approach on a number of things, whether it's health care or equal marriage rights for same-sex couples, or drug policy."

Davies says she and other members of government will lobby Canadian Justice Minister Irwin Cotler to refuse extradition of Emery. Under treaty with the U.S., Cotler was apparently required to provide Mounties to execute the U.S. arrest warrant, and will be required to present Emery for extradition hearings. Even if a judge decides to send him to the U.S., however, Cotler still has broad discretion to say no.

Vancouver Sun columnist Peter McKnight, in a September 10 piece laying out the several options for refusing extradition, wrapped it up with the idea that Emery's "persecution" might actually advance the legalization cause, writing: "That leaves Cotler with one last way to refuse extradition, and it's a way that, for both legal and moral reasons, Cotler ought to take. Whether he wants to admit it or not, selling viable cannabis seeds is de facto legal in Canada, and Cotler can therefore refuse to surrender Emery on the grounds that what he is charged with in the U.S. is not an offence [sic] in Canada."

Chris Girouard, a spokesman for the Justice Ministry, says selling viable pot seeds is a crime in Canada, but that the U.S. can determine what conduct should be treated as a crime in the U.S., "so the frequency of the prosecution in Canada is not a factor."

The Prince of Pot

The fact that mainstream Canadian columnists like McKnight are going to bat for a pothead is attributable, in many ways, to the work of Marc Emery himself. When he launched Emery Seeds in 1994, Canadian laws were more strict than the U.S. Even distributing literature about pot could get you six months in jail. No store dared to carry bongs or pipes. Or a pair of hemp shoes.

He opened a bookstore and began importing Jack Herer's hemp bible, The Emperor Wears No Clothes, then went door-to-door selling High Times and books about industrial hemp and medical marijuana. He started the BC Marijuana Party, which spawned a U.S. equivalent, and ran for mayor twice, the provincial legislature three times, and federal Parliament once.

His Cannabis Culture magazine and website enjoy heavy readerships and his Pot-TV programs have received as many as 10 million viewers — including, he says, the children of Justice Minister Cotler. Co-conspirator Michelle Rainey was the financial agent for the BC Marijuana Party, and worked out of the bookstore. Greg Williams, an employee of Pot-TV, was also arrested there.

These new institutions notwithstanding, Emery built his reputation through Yippie-like national campaigns that put the pot issue on Canada's front pages. In 2003, he launched the Summer of Legalization Tour, contending that pot was legal and demonstrating this by smoking a bong or a huge joint in front of police stations in 18 cities across Canada. Ultimately, he was charged in six cities and five provinces.

"All those charges were dropped because I was right, pot really was legal and their courts just hadn't acknowledged it," crows Emery. He operated so openly, and with such impunity, that it came as a bit of a shock when he was actually convicted on a similar offense in 2004. He was barreling along on a 22-city speaking tour of university campuses, once again making a show of a few token tokes, when he was busted flat in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, for passing a joint.

It seemed a laughable charge, but the judge was upset, saying Emery was arrogant and flouting the law — which he clearly was -- and gave him 92 days in the pokey. He served 62 — a fairly severe sentence in Canada. In 11 years, it has been his only custodial conviction. The other 10 sentences were either fines or probation.

"I've been very, very busy, and we've gotten books and magazines legalized, hemp stores are everywhere in the country, pipes and bongs are everywhere — we have legal medical marijuana and a vibrant hemp industry, in the space of 11 years," says Emery. "On the ground, too, people have gone from 26 percent support for legal marijuana to 57 percent in Canada."

After all that living way out front, Emery has earned some support from the Canadian people. But not all of his rapid-fire extemporizing has worked. After his arrest in July, he called Cotler a "Jewish Nazi" and compared marijuana prohibition to the Holocaust, drawing howls from online commentators. He has also made a habit of telling reporters that, since selling 60,000 seeds would make him a "kingpin" under Newt Gingrich's draconian federal drug statute, he could be subject to the death penalty.

U.S. Attorney Todd Greenberg insists he is not subject to that charge, which would make extradition illegal. "If I'm extradited, Canadians will never see me alive again," Emery says. "And even if the Canadian government tried to make an arrangement to have me sent back to a Canadian prison, I am certain that I'd be murdered or damaged mentally by the time I got to Canada, so I could never actively work against the government again." In the battle of bluster, he and DEA head Karen Tandy seem made for each other.

Do Not Respond to the Blue Letters!

Then again, Emery has plenty of strange evidence to fuel his conspiratorial fears. First of all, the DEA statement seems to indicate they're investigating not only his customers but also the activists and politicians who've taken his money. Then, shortly after his arrest, customers who had ordered seeds from Emery received mysterious letters, printed on blue stock, which seemed like a sting operation.

The letters, printed on the Cannabis Culture website, acknowledge the shutdown of Emery Seeds, offer a hip-hooray to Emery himself with some weird cult-of-personality cheers — "Smoke For Our Leader! Overgrow The Government!" -- then ask for another $100 to fill the already-paid order. Customers are instructed to go to either Western Union or Wal-Mart to send the $100 to someone in Vancouver, using a different name each time, like Mike Wong or Patrick Oliver, and to use a specific password, "SWAP."

In order to complete the order and receive seeds, customers were required to e-mail a confirmation of their order, the Money Control Number, the real name of the sender, and their home address (no P.O. box accepted) to a Yahoo e-mail. Which would give an agent every piece of information they would need to arrest and convict someone for buying pot. Evidently, no one was fooled. Instead, scores of customers all over the world simply sent the letters back to Emery as evidence. The splash page on his now-closed seed company website barks in huge block letters: "DO NOT RESPOND TO THE BLUE LETTERS!"

Todd Greenberg laughs at the idea that this is a sting: "You've gotta think: His customers, many of them, are engaged in criminal activity," he says. "Would it shock you that they'd seize upon this as a way to make some money? I think he's paranoid." Asked if this is a DEA operation, Jeff Eig says, "Not that I know of."

For his part, Emery is girding for political battle. He is terrified, but also energized. He's accustomed to the bittersweet quality of his notoriety: Every time he's been profiled by major media, he's been busted -- a month after appearing on the cover of The Wall Street Journal , a month after a profile in Rolling Stone , two months after being the subject of a CNN Special.

This time, the situation is flipped. The DEA has given him a mighty tall soapbox. But now he's trying to save not just the weed, and not just his own ass, but those of Rainey and Williams, too. "The whole business proposition was to raise money to start a revolutionary botanical movement to destroy the U.S. drug war and to stop this vicious gulaging that goes on with our people," he says, adding, "So I was very good at what I do, 'cause the DEA noticed."

Dean Kuipers is editor of LA CityBeat.