By Susanne Tabata
Photos: Courtesy of Marc Emery
VANCOUVER — When Canada extradited Marc Emery to the U.S. to serve out a five-year prison term for selling seeds, marijuana was illegal. By the time he was released from jail in July 2014, Washington State and Colorado had both passed legislation legalizing pot. Anyone who had followed Marc’s story knew the sentence was… harsh. While he sat behind bars, his wife Jodie worked on the 502 ballot initiative to legalize pot in Washington State, which Marc was asked to endorse. Her accomplice was the same DA John McKay who had sworn out an indictment against Marc in 2005.
“So here’s the DA changing his mind and then writing out the legislation and then doing press conferences with my wife. It’s so rich in irony it would make a good scene in a movie,” says Emery, now a free man with many stories to tell. Times are changing quickly and so is the law. With prohibition likely to end in Canada in the near future, the “Prince of Pot” reflects on his sentence, prison life, and what the future holds for him in the new world of ‘pot incorporated.’
Emery admits his punishment was due to “arrogance in that proud way.” He was outspoken about selling a lot of seeds and raising a lot of money to give away for ballot initiatives. “We gave a lot of money to Colorado to get signatures in 2000 and that was very successful and it became law. So the DEA was aware we were earning millions of dollars and spending it. Additionally we had sold over three million seeds to Americans and that produced a staggering quantity of marijuana. I used to boast in my advertising that my work as one person selling those seeds would grow more pot than the DEA could destroy in a year. Well, that kind of stuff is going to bring you to their attention and sure enough they had hundreds of agents working on my case over a three year period, spending millions and millions of dollars.”
As for prison life, he admits, “For me it was a better experience than it would be for most others. I’ve done a lot of television shows and they used to air them in prison. Like National Geographic airs Marijuana Nation all the time in the U.S. People would see me on TV and it would give me status and street cred. Black rappers wore Free Marc jerseys. Snoop Dogg gave me an award last year and said ‘keep your chin up nigga’ and all of a sudden I became an honourary black guy. Tommy Chong wore a ‘Free Marc’ T-shirt on CNN. I got 7,500 letters from different Americans in four and a half years. One guy sent me a letter every day for the entire time I was in prison. Not just a letter but reprints from books and magazines, a whole package for me to read. He was a 61-year-old pensioner on disability and he would do that every day.
“Music was a savior to me. Having to learn to read music and play music was a pleasure I could have almost everyday. I learned how to play bass guitar and was taught by these musicians with 30 years experience so I was in this rock ‘n’ roll band for three years. We played songs from the ’60s and ’70s, some ’90s. The hardest and most satisfying was Stevie Ray Vaughn. ‘Texas Flood’ took me 30 days to learn the bass, whereas ‘The Thrill is Gone’ took me 20 minutes. ‘Come Together’ was a couple of hours. We did ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash,’ a few Hendrix songs, Cream, Bob Marley and some country songs. I even sang a couple of them.
“I came closest to getting high and having an orgasm when I was playing. Whenever we practiced it was like we weren’t in prison at all. It was a great escape. That was all paid for by the inmates. The feds didn’t allow the prison to make money off of prisoners so all the money made at the prison commissary went into a trust fund for the inmates and it paid for the music program. Yazoo Medium (Mississippi) had the best music program out of any prison I’ve ever heard of.”
Emery doesn’t miss being a prisoner but misses the music. “I used to practice every day. I got a brand new Fender jazz bass and I haven’t touched it for a note.” He has no time while speaking in 15 European cities over a six-month period and receiving four lifetime achievement awards. Add to that he has “30 cities to visit in Canada from August to October for the federal election where we are supporting the Liberals.”
Back in Vancouver, business carries on at 307 West Hastings, known as Marc Emery’s Cannabis Culture. Marc clarified how the Seed Bank is related to his business. “It was known as Marc Emery Direct Seeds. The Vancouver Seed Bank started after I stopped selling seeds in 2005. One of my employees Rebecca Ambrose started Vancouver Seed Bank so we just invited her to be partners with us here so we have a Seed Bank in the building. We do derive revenue from that business. We are opening up a new location at Davie and Bidwell in April. Both a lounge and a store and we’ll have seeds there too, as well as everything else. We are looking forward to being in the West End, a block away from the beach.
“We have seeds in this building that will help people cultivate indoor or outdoor marijuana suitable to the West Coast or other areas in Canada. Some of them are heirloom strains that somebody has had for 10-15 years or longer and others are recent hybridizations from people still working to perfect strains. There are so many seed companies out there that you have to go by reputation.” Emery says check the Internet. “You can find out what happens when people get those seeds and they grow out. Everyone likes to show off with photographs.”
There is a fear that the corporatization of pot will spell bad news for the ‘little guy’ but Emery sees it differently.
“I want to be able to advertise, buy billboards, in fact that is one of the most important things. We need to be able to compete like a capitalist entity on a level playing field. We need to be able to advertise marijuana vs. alcohol, marijuana vs. prescription drugs, marijuana vs. all those things that people do for medicine or recreational therapy that are far more harmful to them. “ He acknowledges pot is big business. “The money is pouring into cannabis. Some license providers have capitalization of 50 to 80 million dollars. You’ve got very sophisticated vaporizers being made by companies. A lot of money is going to research and development for therapeutic treatments. You’re going to see a huge amount of pharmaceutical money, industrial money, and hedge fund money move into cannabis. In fact it’s already moving into it by the hundreds of millions of dollars.” Is it visible? “Yes, in a way that was never even possible or thought of 10 years ago.”
Susanne Tabata is the creator of the punk documentary Bloodied But Unbowed. Special thanks to Marc and Jodie Emery.