By Peter Lewis, Seattle Times staff reporter
VANCOUVER, B.C. — Marc Emery differs in so many ways from most people accused of big-time drug dealing, it's hard to know where to start.
Even though he faces the possibility of decades in a U.S. prison for selling marijuana seeds to Americans, Emery regularly welcomes a steady stream of journalists. That's an approach most people accused of drug dealing avoid instinctively, or on advice of their attorneys.
Not Emery, founder of the B.C. Marijuana Party, who maintains that his legal troubles spring from the U.S. government's desire to muzzle him and the movement he claims to lead.
He relishes his reputation as the so-called "Prince of Pot" and "Mayor of Vansterdam," the latter a reference to Vancouver and Amsterdam, the Dutch city where marijuana can be purchased from "coffee shops." He proudly proclaims his long-term vision to "overgrow the government" by spreading marijuana faster than drug agents could eradicate it.
Unlike others accused of drug dealing, Emery has for years made no effort to hide the fact he earns his living from marijuana, making millions selling marijuana seeds and paraphernalia through his Vancouver store and the Internet. It's that marijuana-centered business that has landed Emery in hot water in the U.S., where a Seattle-based grand jury has indicted him and two of his employees on drug and money-laundering charges.
Emery, who is free on bond, freely expounds on the virtues of marijuana for both recreational and medicinal purposes. He claims to have poured nearly $4 million (Canadian) into political and legal causes to decriminalize marijuana and/or to make it available for medical use, including ballot initiatives in Nevada, Alaska and Arizona.
Emery contends a news release issued July 29, the day of his arrest, reveals the U.S. government's intention to mute his efforts to advance the spread of marijuana. In the release, Karen Tandy, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, wrote: "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 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."
Tandy's office has declined to comment about the statement, but locally, federal prosecutors have distanced themselves from her remarks.
Todd Greenberg, the lead assistant U.S. attorney on the case, said he could understand how her comments could be interpreted as having a political dimension but added, "No one locally has made such a statement. No prosecutor, no agent, no one in Seattle."
"As the chief [federal] law-enforcement official here, I'm not interested in his political speech in the slightest," added Seattle U.S. Attorney John McKay. "He's a legitimate target."
Prosecutors contend that Emery was targeted because he was Canada's largest supplier of seeds and marijuana-growing equipment, and because the majority of his customers were U.S. citizens. Prosecutors allege that Emery also has provided customers with detailed instructions on how to grow marijuana, and also sold specialized lights, fans and fertilizer.
"He was a one-stop shopping facilitator for marijuana growers," Greenberg said.
Emery does not quarrel with the substance of the charges, though he has much to say about the U.S. government's "war on drugs," which he described as "immoral and lethal." In fact, he is unabashedly proud of his efforts.
"If I'm going to be sentenced to life in prison in a U.S. jail, it'll be for what I've done, and I'm proud of what I've done," said Emery. "And there's no going back on that. I helped facilitate hopefully millions of Americans to grow marijuana."
At the request of the U.S. government, Canadian prosecutors are working to force Emery and co-defendants Michelle Rainey-Fenkarek and Gregory Williams to appear in Seattle federal court to answer drug-conspiracy and money-laundering charges stemming from Emery's seed and marijuana-growing business.
They are fighting extradition, a process that legal experts say could take up to two years. Theirs will be an uphill fight, acknowledges John Conroy, a Canadian lawyer assisting the defendants.
Conroy notes that the U.S.-Canadian treaty under which Emery and the others were arrested creates an exception for extradition in the case of offenses of a "political character." The problem, Conroy adds, is that the treaty goes on to deem certain crimes, including drug offenses, as ineligible for the political-character exception.
Another argument likely to be advanced is "cruel and unusual punishment," Conroy said, referring to the much harsher sentence the defendants would face in the U.S. — up to life in prison.
"I face a penalty longer than what you'd get for multiple murder in Canada," Emery said.
Technically, Emery could face up to life in prison under Canadian law. But Conroy, a noted criminal-defense attorney, said there are no mandatory minimum sentences in Canada and that "life in prison" means the defendant is generally eligible for parole after seven years, except in murder cases.
British Columbia courts levied fines but didn't imposed jail time on the three occasions Emery was convicted of selling marijuana seeds. The punishment is consistent with a judicial attitude reflected in a 2003 drug-case ruling by Court of Appeals Justice Mary Southin, who described marijuana as "no better or worse, morally or physically, than people who like a martini."
Emery said he is happy to become a martyr for the movement. He thanks the DEA for the heightened exposure, because he says he's suddenly become relevant to people who don't smoke marijuana.
"Now I'm meeting a lot of people, including very old people, who are alarmed about the sovereignty of this country," Emery said. "But also Americans who are just shocked by the potential prison sentence I might get."
The meaning of life
Emery's appearance and eloquence might surprise those who automatically associate pot with the spaced-out persona made famous by the Cheech and Chong comedy team. Now 47, he says he has smoked marijuana almost daily for 25 years.
Clean-shaven and nerdy-looking with a high forehead, Emery could pass for a stockbroker or an accountant. In fact, he was a bookseller for many years before he dedicated his life to growing marijuana.
He credits marijuana with making him a better parent, a better lover and even a better driver, partly because it made him understand that life was "all about discovery, not actualization."
He published his political manifesto a decade ago in the first edition of his magazine, Cannabis Culture:
"We are a wrongly outlawed culture, viciously discriminated against for 72 years, and we are finally effectively organizing to reclaim our rightful place in society as individuals among equals. We have a right to our culture and we must act and inform to ensure that we receive proper justice."
Of the political course he set for himself, Emery said in a recent interview, "I wanted to rapidly change the way the world looks at marijuana." Hence his decision to popularize the use of seeds along with instructions on how to grow them.
"I sold millions of seeds over 11 years, all over the world," Emery said, offering more than 500 varieties.
His highest grossing year for seed sales was 2002, when he took in $2.2 million (Canadian), he said. He also said he has provided free seeds to people certified as medical-marijuana patients.
Since 1999, Emery says he has paid $578,000 (Canadian) in income tax, identifying seed-sales as the source of his income to the Canadian Revenue Agency, the equivalent of the IRS.
Legalization and leniency
Emery said he continues to smoke marijuana despite his arrest and subsequent release on $50,000 bond. But less often these days, he said, because he can no longer afford it.
Emery also is something of a provocateur. Three years ago, for example, Emery and other marijuana activists bought a table at a luncheon in Vancouver where Bush administration drug czar John Walters was making a presentation.
Every time Walters made a comment about marijuana that Emery and his friends believed was untrue, they'd heckle him. "We yelled 'liar,' " Emery recalled, "so he [Walters] just had a total slow burn. ... I'm sure I've never been forgiven for that."
Then there was the "summer of legalization tour" in 2003. Emery recounted that he "smoked a bong or a big joint in front of police stations in 18 cities across Canada."
He has been arrested many times, but more often than not the charges were dropped, Emery said. The point, he added, was to demonstrate his belief that marijuana is effectively legal in Canada.
In fact, possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana (including marijuana seeds), carries punishment of up to 12 months in prison and a $1,000 fine.
Emery felt the sting of Canadian enforcement in the summer of 2004, when he served 62 days in Saskatoon Correctional Centre for possession and trafficking after admitting he'd passed a joint in a public park. But Emery chalked that experience up to landing in front of an unforgiving judge in a conservative province.
You'd never know marijuana is illegal walking around parts of Vancouver.
Next door to Emery's B.C. Marijuana Party headquarters on West Hastings Street, toward the back of the New Amsterdam Cafe, is a designated "smoke room" where patrons smoke marijuana and tobacco weekdays until 4:30 p.m.
Smoking is confined to the room during normal work hours to be "respectful" of neighboring businesses, an employee said. But after 4:30 p.m. weekdays, and on the weekends, the ashtrays move into the main dining room.
A question of tactics
Before the DEA raided Emery's business in July, it had been seven years since Vancouver Police had charged him for seed sales. A police spokeswoman said he was charged in September 1998 with two counts of "possession with the purpose of trafficking viable marijuana seeds," for which he was fined $4,000, and served no jail time.
Some find Emery's style unnecessarily confrontational. Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell, for example, says he has nothing against Emery but questions his tactics.
Campbell said he supports legalizing marijuana and controlling it in much the same fashion as tobacco and cigarettes, including taxing it to the hilt. The taxes should be dedicated, he added, to pay for health care for addiction services.
Still, he adds, "Marc thinks he's more than he really is. ... Marc thinks he's the Mahatma Gandhi of the movement. ...
"You keep poking a stick in the eye of the DEA, something's going to happen, and effectively, that's what he did."