VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Psychedelic rock booms through The Toker's Bowl. Young and some not-so-young people smoke pot through a variety of devices in the store's Vapour Lounge. And owner Marc Emery stands in the middle of it all, proclaiming his goal of defeating the U.S. war on drugs.
Known as the Prince of Pot, Emery has sold millions of marijuana seeds around the world by mail over the past decade. In doing so, he has drawn the attention of U.S. drug officials, who want him extradited to Seattle. Emery has agreed to plead guilty in Seattle to one count of marijuana distribution in exchange for dismissal of all other counts, and the U.S. District Attorney is pressing for a sentence of five to eight years in a U.S. prison.
The case is the latest twist in Emery's two-decade-long fight against the prohibition of marijuana in North America. To his supporters, he is a brave crusader for the use and sale of a drug with both recreational and medicinal value. To drug officials, he is a criminal and the biggest purveyor of marijuana from Canada into the United States.
Emery sits "right smack in the middle" of the North American debate over marijuana prohibition, said Allen St. Pierre of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in Washington, D.C. St. Pierre predicted that Emery's trial would "kick-start it all again."
But drug officials say they are simply going after one of the world's top 50 drug traffickers. U.S. authorities claim Emery's seeds have grown $2.2 billion worth of pot.
"We've been very clear it had nothing to do with Mr. Emery's political stand," said Emily Langlie of the U.S. District Attorney's Office in Seattle.
Emery himself, a two-time candidate for mayor of Vancouver who has never shied away from publicity, seems almost gleeful about the legal saga. He calls it the greatest platform he could have in his crusade, and his Facebook page notes that these days he hums the chorus from Canadian musician Baron Longfellow's "I'm Going to Need a Miracle Tonight". He predicted he will be in a U.S. jail by August, and will then ask supporters to push for his transfer to a Canadian jail.
"I do have millions of supporters in the U.S. and Canada," he said, unburdened by false modesty. "It's my job as leader of the cannabis culture to thwart the United States government."
Emery, 51, was a teen when he started selling banned pro-marijuana literature in Vancouver. He did the same in London, Ontario, including on the steps of a police station, hoping to be arrested and have his day in court. Returning to Vancouver in 1994, he set out to start a "hemp revolution business," and opened a store called Hemp B.C. in the firebombed shell of a Communist bookshop in what is now known as Pot Block.
He sold marijuana seeds and used the money to fund his campaign against pot prohibition.
"It rapidly expedited cash flow. No one else in North America was doing it," he said.
Emery took in up to $2.6 million in seed sales per year. He claims to have sold more than four million seeds, three-quarters of those to customers in the U.S.
He says he has been arrested 21 times and jailed 17 times. In 2004, he was convicted in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan for passing a joint, and spent three months behind bars.
In Vancouver, however, he says police have for years chosen to ignore his business. He claims federal Canadian officials have even suggested people contact him to buy seeds for medical marijuana. Furthermore, Emery says, he has paid almost $500,000 in Canadian income tax since 1999. He says his seed sales funded half the activities of the pro-marijuana movement in Canada between 1995 and 2005, and up to 10 percent of the U.S. movement.
The marijuana debate is still wending its way through communities and courts in the United States. Federal law prohibits the possession of marijuana, even for medicinal purposes. However, the states have different laws and penalties.
In Canada, cultivation is illegal except for medical use, and a campaign to legalize it is under way nationwide.
However, Prime Minister Stephen Harper takes a tough stance and wants mandatory minimum jail sentences for dealers and growers. And Emery is having trouble getting the City of Vancouver to re-licence his stores, which include The Toker's Bowl, a cafe, a convenience store and the studios for Pot TV. Vancouver is suffering a string of killings over cocaine from Mexico, sometimes bartered for homegrown marijuana.
Emery's latest brush with the law began on July 29, 2005, when Canadian and American drug enforcement officers nabbed him along with two employees of Emery Seeds — Michelle Rainey and Gregory Keith Williams.
Emery was arrested in Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia, and was returned to Canada's West Coast by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents. Police raided Emery's Vancouver store, which doubles as the headquarters for the British Columbia Marijuana Party he leads.
It was the culmination of an 18-month investigation by American authorities. The DEA said at the time that Emery's business and his Cannabis Culture magazine generated $5 million a year to bolster his trafficking efforts.
"He's a drug trafficker, plain and simple," said the DEA's Rodney Benson in 2006. "Marc Emery is a significant threat to the United States."
The two employees have since pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Seattle to conspiracy to manufacture marijuana, law enforcement officials say. They have entered into a plea agreement and will be sentenced on July 17. They faced 10 years to life in prison, but prosecutors agreed to recommend two years' probation, Emery said.
According to a DEA statement, Rainey said in her plea that she sent seeds and growing instructions to customers at Emery's instruction. She said 75 percent of the customers were in the U.S.
Williams said he handled the phone orders and the wire transfer information, and also sold seeds directly to store customers. On numerous occasions in 2004, Williams sold seeds to an undercover agent, the DEA release said.
Jason Gratl of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association said Rainey and Williams were arrested to leverage Emery into surrender, and the charges against him could have disguised an ulterior motive.
"It appears the proceedings were initiated to quell certain quarters of the marijuana movement on both sides of the border," Gratl said.
Emery said he was willing to die in a U.S. jail for his cause.
"Dying as a victim of the state's cruelty would really help a person like me. The way you die is very important," he said. "Martin Luther King was killed and that's very important to his legacy."
His wife, Jodie, a former provincial Green Party candidate, snorted at this.
"I hate when he talks like that," she interjected. "I think it would be better if he continued the work he does."
Emery smiled, unrepentant.
"I had a very good reason for selling those seeds," he said. "I wanted to defeat the U.S. war on drugs."