Canadians have developed an aversion to prohibitions in their many incarnations. We laugh at the stupidity of our silly forbears who got caught up in the US fanaticism of the 1920s ban on alcohol. Sure, we ended up with a smaller and shorter version of prohibition at home, but that didn’t stop us from making money from supplying US drinkers; from small smugglers along coastal British Columbia and Nova Scotia to the Montreal firm Seagram, which enjoyed rapid growth because of its alleged association with bootleggers.
It was decades after alcohol prohibition before we made progress in reducing prohibitions against gay sex, pornography and, yes, even gay journalism in Canada. In recent years, there’s been a groundswell against anti-prostitution prohibitions, though the laws have not caught up to public attitudes.
And we know that prohibition of drugs is not only futile, but also actually counterproductive because of the rapid growth it has fostered in organized crime and its associated violence against individuals and societies. Most people I know snort at the idiocy of the US government’s “Say No to Drugs” campaign that continues to be forced on the rest of the world, even as it fails spectacularly in cities across the US.
Even some of our rightwing newspapers (inspired as always by their fountainhead of ideology, the Vancouver’s Fraser Institute) are now editorializing that crime syndicates will best be critically undermined if the federal government legalizes society’s favourite drugs, especially marijuana — and some even suggest that government should be retailing the drugs to control quality and consistency of dose strength.
We came close in Canada to taking a more mature path. If Paul Martin hadn’t pushed out Jean Chretien as quickly as he did, Chretien might have decriminalized — or even legalized — marijuana, as he promised. Certainly, it increased Chretien’s public popularity when he spoke of it. Polls show Canadians are ready to take the state out of the lives of prostitutes and users of light drugs like marijuana and ecstasy. But the Harper government is heading in the other direction, gearing up to send more grass smokers to jail. Average people, the people you go to school with or hang with on weekends, are about to be treated as serious criminals when Harper’s new laws force judges to send people to jail for small stuff. Yes, the small stuff you probably have in your bedside table.
It’s nuts. But it’s only one example of this “thing” that Harper, an evangelical Christian, has with anything he views as morally unacceptable — gay sex, government-subsidized movies about young people boffing, your taking an occasional puff. You get the picture.
It’s far worse than it seems, though. Because in his eagerness to send strong anti-drug messages to you and me, and to stay on the right side of US Republicans, Harper has made a political prisoner of someone that many Canadians view as a genuine folk hero. Yes, I said political prisoner — and I think that’s the most appropriate label for the horror of what has been done to Marc Emery.
Emery is known in Vancouver as the Prince of Pot. For years, he ran a company exporting marijuana seeds to the US and operated the Cannabis Café, featuring vaporizers at every table. But rather than grow rich, he used much of his profit to fight for marijuana legalization. He contributed heavily to marijuana activist groups on both sides of the border, a major thorn in the side of governments. He was publisher of Cannabis Culture magazine, owned POT-TV (and hosted the Prince of Pot Show) and founded (and ran in federal and provincial elections on the ticket of) the BC Marijuana Party. And he did it all out in the open. Marc Emery is not a criminal, but rather a political activist with the courage of his convictions and the cash flow to help fund a movement that has turned large numbers of people on both sides of the border against drug prohibition.
The Harper government allowed his extradition to Seattle, Washington. On May 24, following a plea-bargain, he pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to manufacture marijuana (a charge relating to the mail-order seed business) in exchange for a five-year prison term. He will be sentenced in August and serve five years if the judge doesn’t impose a different sentence despite the bargain.
Under Canadian law, the chance of a conviction against Emery for selling seeds was low, and so he was never charged. (And let’s remember that marijuana is important medicine for many people with HIV, cancer and glaucoma, among other challenges, and that many in the medical establishment, perhaps even Health Canada itself, have referred ill people to internet seed sales.
Most Vancouver residents are proud of how marijuana has largely eclipsed alcohol as the local stimulant of choice. There’s been no clamouring, not even from local police, to prosecute Emery. To many here he’s a folk hero.
Not so in Stephen Harper’s Ottawa. Harper was happy to comply with US requests for the extradition. An unworkable foreign “Say No to Drugs” law was being applied against one of our own activists and politicians. The long arm of failed US political drug policy (or should I say posturing) was reaching in to Canada and plucking our most effective political activist on marijuana issues — with the active participation of the Harper government.
Talk about out of touch with changing Canadian attitudes toward prohibition. It would be funny if not for the uncomfortable truths behind this. Since at least 1998, US policing organizations, including Naval Criminal Investigative Service (yep, the NCIS of the TV show of the same name) police, border and drugs specialists have been setting up shop on this side of the border and tracking down people that they consider criminals — and you probably consider your friendly neighbour.
The real agenda, the political nature of Emery’s arrest, was made clear in 2005 by US Drug Enforcement Administration big-wig Karen Tandy of all people. In a media release that caused international groups to label Emery a political prisoner, Tandy was quoted:
“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 US and Canada, but also to the marijuana legalization movement. His marijuana trade and propagandist marijuana magazine have generated nearly $5 million a year in profits that bolstered his trafficking efforts, but those have gone up in smoke today. Emery and his organization had been designated as one of the Attorney General’s most wanted international drug trafficking organizational targets — one of only 46 in the world and the only one from Canada. 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. Drug legalization lobbyists now have one less pot of money to rely on.”
Emery is now in jail in Seattle awaiting sentencing this August. Will the Canadian government at least bring him back to serve time on his home soil? Or will Stephen Harper continue to mix moralism and politics, even when it makes him complicit in Canadians serving jail terms as political prisoners on US soil?
Emery’s wife, friends and political colleagues have started a Free Marc campaign online. He’s an unusual poster-boy for a political movement to eliminate Canada’s drug prohibition laws. Substantial progress on that issue (and anti-prostitution laws) will have to await the day when Stephen Harper is replaced by a progressive government. And perhaps the next government will have the courage to send US police organizations packing — they’ve only been here about a half-decade and must surely be getting home-sick for their more moralistic nation.
In the meantime, let’s bring Marc Emery home to serve his time.