Marc Emery’s two decades of marijuana activism and entrepreneurship have earned him the nickname “The Prince of Pot” and 23 trips to jail. The most recent, a 4½-year stint in U.S. federal custody for his mail-order pot seed business, is now at an end. Awaiting deportation back to Canada, he spoke to Maclean’s about his plans for the future from inside a Louisiana detention centre. His wife and fellow activist, Jodie Emery, joined in from their Vancouver home.
Q: Marc, you were released on July 9. What’s the holdup in getting you back to Canada?
ME: It’s just bureaucracy. It’s all about my passport. And of course, the reason I don’t have one is the Canadian government took it away from me when I was arrested in 2005. I was brought here by Canadian officials and delivered to American officials. They know who I am. They know I’m here.
Q: How will you get home?
ME: The Department of Homeland Security will pick me up, take me to the New Orleans airport and deliver me to Detroit. Then U.S. marshals will pick me up and drive me through the tunnel and drop me off at the border. It’s like Checkpoint Charlie.
JE: I’m hoping Mark can phone me the day before—that’s the soonest we’ll get notice—and then I’ll run to the airport and fly to Toronto and get to Windsor. This happens to a lot of Canadians who are incarcerated abroad. The government moves very slowly.
Q: Marc, you made a plea deal with U.S. prosecutors in 2010 that would have seen you serve part of your sentence in a Canadian jail. What happened to that agreement?
ME: I’ve had three Conservative MPs get up in the House and denounce me in the past year and point out that there was no way they were bringing me back on the treaty exchange. The government was actually legally obligated to take me back on a transfer that the U.S. had approved.
JE: But they just delayed on the paperwork and never answered. Finally, the U.S. government wrote to Marc and said they were closing the file.
Q: The Americans went to some extraordinary lengths to have you charged.
ME: They spent a huge amount of money. Drug Enforcement Administration agents in 48 states bought seeds from me. And they had an agent come to Vancouver and buy seeds from me in person over a period of a year and a half. They had confidential informants and people who had grown pot who were going to testify against me. They did so much work that they knew, right down to the dollar, how much money I had donated to U.S. pot activists over the past five years. When we did a Freedom of Information request, the DEA said they had 6,000 pages on me. And all along, the Canadian government was declining to prosecute me at home. But they were actively working with the DEA to have me extradited.
JE: The Vancouver PD were getting money from the DEA. They were billing the DEA for rental vehicles and parking tickets. They tried to get [Marc] to sell them some pot, but he wouldn’t. They wanted it to be less politically obvious.
Q: You were convicted twice for selling seeds in Canada and received small fines. But the Canada Revenue Agency was treating your business like it was at least quasi-legal. You were paying taxes, weren’t you?
ME: Absolutely. I paid $588,000 in personal income tax from 1999 to 2005, strictly on my seed business alone. In fact, when I got busted in 2005, I owed them $125,000 more from when I sponsored the entire B.C. Marijuana Party campaign in 2001 and paid for all 79 candidates. I took money from the company and gave it to myself to give to the party, and incurred a tax debt. I was giving the CRA $15,000 a month. After I got busted, we had a meeting and they asked, “Marc, how soon can you start selling seeds again so we can get your tax payments back on schedule?” The CRA were so upset when I told them the judge wouldn’t let me. Now, with all the penalties and interest, I owe about $300,000 to the federal government.
Q: You gave $5 million to legalization efforts in the States and Canada. Seeing what’s happened in places like Colorado and Washington state since you’ve been imprisoned, do you feel like it was well-spent?
ME: In Colorado especially, because in 2000 I paid for the collection of a large number of the signatures that got their medical marijuana initiative on the ballot, and that really jump-started their movement. I gave money for ballot campaigns in Washington, D.C., Arizona and Alaska. We gave money to all sorts of groups for state and national initiatives.
Q: In 2012, John McKay, the U.S. attorney who drew up the indictment against you, came out in favour of legalization and even made an appearance with Jodie. Was that ironic, or satisfying, or both?
ME: It’s satisfying now, but it was upsetting at the time.
JE: Right after Marc got extradited, [McKay] wrote an editorial for a Seattle paper where he called for the legalization of marijuana. Then we both testified before the state legislature. Afterward, I thanked him for taking a stand. Later, he agreed to come up to Vancouver and hold a press conference. He ended up being one of the main sponsors of Washington’s bill. I understand why Marc was upset. It was annoying at first. But it’s nice to have your enemy admit that they did wrong.
Q: Has prison changed you?
ME: I had a special experience in my 4½ years in prison. I never heard an unkind word. Inmates were exceptionally nice to me; kind and thoughtful. I never encountered any violence or threats. I was never dealt with in an unkind manner by prison guards. I had 81 visits from Jodie. I was taught how to play the bass guitar and ended up in a band with these really good musicians, and now I have a repertoire of about 120 songs. I have a lot of strangely fond memories of prison and my experience there.
Q: Is it true that you stopped smoking pot while in jail?
ME: Yup. You can get whatever kind of drugs you want, but I stayed well away from that. I was always convinced I would be tested the day after, and a whole world of hurt comes down on you if you fail. You go to solitary for three to six months. You lose three months of good behaviour time and phone privileges. You lose visits for a year and get a disciplinary transfer. And you get charged, which can add years to your sentence.
Q: Are you going to start smoking again?
ME: Oh, as soon as I get home. But I only want to smoke the worst, weakest marijuana, and not much of it at all, because I need to be able to do interviews, stay upright for speaking and meet all my well-wishers. I’ll have to ease in gently. There will be no bong hits at all for several days.
Q: Jodie, since Marc has been in jail, you’ve been running the business and become the face of the legalization movement in Canada. Has his time away changed you?
JE: When I got involved with Marc, I knew there were unknowns ahead. That he was always going to be an activist who would get into trouble. But I’ve never planned out my life. I take what comes, and I’ve been kind of enjoying it. I don’t have hobbies or friends or a social circle. And before I met Marc, I never dated or had a boyfriend. I’ve always just been focused on issues.
Q: You recently announced your intention to seek the federal Liberal nomination in Vancouver East. The party reaction was kind of cool. Have you filed the papers yet?
JE: I’ve sent an online request for them. I understand why they’re nervous. But with marijuana being such a big issue, I think I could be a really good spokesperson to defend Justin Trudeau from all the attacks.
Q: Marc, you’ve said that you want to seek some “political revenge” when you get back. How?
ME: I’ll be campaigning against the Conservative government in any way I can. I’m going on a campus tour in January and February, and I’ll be telling people to join the Liberal party and support them. In September and October next year, we’ll be touring cities on a daily basis, speaking at election rallies. I plan to be very actively engaged in the run-up to the next election in October 2015. My other big job will be earning a living. I’ve got substantial debts, so I’ll be at our [Vancouver Cannabis Culture] store, drawing customers in, adding my flair.
Q: Are you going back into the seed business?
ME: We will, but on a more limited basis. Twenty years ago, I was the only person selling seeds in Canada. Now there are dozens. And this whole ordeal has forced the closure of my beloved magazine, Cannabis Culture. I used to put my catalogue in there. So I don’t have nearly the audience I once did.
Q: There’s also been talk of a reality TV show . . .
ME: The reality TV producers turned us down after analyzing it. They said there wasn’t enough conflict. They have a formula—a lot of fighting and arguing and drama.
JE: We’re more serious.