Marc Emery: An interview before U.S. prison

Reposted from – originally published May 24, 2010

Editor’s note: The following exclusive interview, recorded by, took place between Libby Davies, MP for Vancouver East, and Marc and Jodie Emery in January 2010 in Vancouver, days before his extradition was expected to take place. Marc, 52, was extradited to the US on May 20th to serve a five-year prison sentence for shipping marijuana seeds to Americans. This far-ranging interview covers the reasons for Emery’s extradition, the war on drugs, Canadian sovereignty, and Marc’s previous experience in prison.

Q – This is my first visit to the new Woodward’s development. It is amazing to look at the big photograph from the Gastown riots.

That is from 1971, August 7th. What happened is Doug McLeod from The Georgia Straight put an ad in, that there was going to be a human be-in, and a smoke-in, on that Saturday, August 7th, because the police had made a lot of busts, and so the head of the Georgia Straight at that time thought there should be a protest, albeit a peace one, about that.

The mayor at the time, Tom Campbell, had the rally, which started around 1 p.m. At 7 p.m. there were 1,000 people there, and over 150 police officers entered the intersection of the four streets on horseback and wielding clubs and using tear gas. By the end of the night over 100 people were hospitalized.

Strangely enough, from that event came a great period of tolerance in Vancouver. The Davie Street community really rapidly developed after that. Marijuana became much more socially acceptable on 4th Avenue in Kitslano and the new areas of Vancouver because there was a reaction to it. It was so violent and so excessive — so covered. Journalists were hit too on the street that night. Business owners on the street were hit by the police. So it tended to have a very beneficial effect in the aftermath, that it made Vancouver very tolerant in all areas for fear of overreaction.

Now unfortunately we’ve gotten far away from that so we see more and more behaviour on the part of the authorities that has a violent note to it.

Q- Were you there at the time?

No. I only learned about it through a comic book called Harold Head, which was done by a fellow called Rand Holmes who was of these parts. He died recently. He would chronicle in the Georgia Straight every week and then finally comic books were put out. And that is where I first heard of it.

Q – It is kind of ironic that we would meet here because of that issue and what we are meeting to discuss today. The following year I began working in the Downtown Eastside, what was still called Skid Road then, and we started the citizen movement to fight the slum landlords and to gain people’s housing rights. That was in 1972. Dera started in 1973, so I remember the so-called Gastown riots…

The first thing I want to ask you Mark, and thank you very much for agreeing to sit down and talk… If you think about your life, you have always been a very active fellow…

Since the age of 10, when I pounded in signs for Alec Richmond, the NDP candidate in London East in 1968. My dad was in the United Autoworkers which is now called the CAW. My dad eventually became the union president of the Machinist Union (of UAW), so that is when I was 10 years old, going out pounding in signs for this NDP candidate. A fellow named Charlie Turner won, and there began a long string of defeats in my electoral career. So I’m always tilting at windmills and going for the ideals.

Q – Had you thought, even 10 years ago, that we would be sitting here today, with you facing extradition? Would you have ever contemplated that this is where this path would take you?

I don’t know if I would have embraced it as much as I do now in the sense that I think the work is so necessary. Ten years ago, I’d probably… I was still frightened of jail. I first went to jail for opposing the Sunday shopping laws, and I wouldn’t pay the fine they gave me so they put you in jail if you don’t pay find and that was 22 years ago, in 1988. So, I was really scared and I was just in jail for five days that first time, for Sunday shopping.

And then I was put in jail for three months in 2004 for passing a joint in Saskatoon. Then I started to have a lot of epiphanies in my jail experiences. First, everyone confesses to me, both jail guards and all the inmates spend a lot time talking telling me about their life. In a way everyone treats me differently like I’m a sensitive artist or something, because I’m often on TV when I’m in jail, or they are aware of my work. I’ve cried in jail, sometimes when talking to Jodie on the phone. And you are never really allowed to cry in jail. They don’t like that. They’ll reprehend most people. For me, they overlooked and they asked ‘are you having a difficult day?’

Q – Let’s start where things are at right now. You are waiting for the actual decision about extradition to be made, and assuming that the federal justice minister approves the extradition, and you will be exiting Canada very shortly and heading to a U.S. jail.

As early as Monday morning I would think. The date for more for lawyer submission is January 8, this Friday. After that the Justice Minister, Rob Nicholson, can have the extradition order signed and I’ll be delivered to a place call SeaTac, by the Seattle airport, and then sentenced to a five-year sentence within a couple of months, and then sent to a U.S. federal penitentiary. Could be anywhere in the America, and it will probably be one designated for aliens as opposed to a minimum-security designation for Americans that would allow me to be on a work farm. I won’t have that opportunity. I’ll be with a lot of Central American and Mexicans and the irony there that a lot of them will be gang members. That is the difficulty that Canadians in California City Prison are having. In California, many of the Central Americans are associated to gangs and they battle each other even in jail, and have a lot of hostilities. The Canadians who aren’t really involved in that worry about getting caught in crossfire, or about the general level of hostility, so they are locked down a lot.

Q – We have made a number of interventions for you. I can’t remember how many justice ministers I’ve talked to, because they keep changing, but most recently to try and get the Canadian government to agree that you should be able to serve your time in Canada instead of being extradited. As a preferable thing, than you being removed from Jodie and your family and your support community. But I gather you don’t hold out much hope for that.

That is not necessarily true. I’m not the kind of person over whom the government would suffer a loss of face by bringing me back to Canada. They often claim that we can’t bring people back because they are threats to national security, members of organized crime. Well, you know a lot of people might think that’s a good thing. So that is up for debate.

But there is no question that I have no association with organized crime. I haven’t hurt anybody. There is no victim here. It is clearly a kind of Bush era persecution. So under the current treaty agreements Canada has with the U.S., I could be transferred back to Canada immediately if the Canadian government were to acquiesce. I’ll put in a transfer as soon as I arrive in a federal penitentiary. It will arrive on the minister’s desk in a month or so. They will usually let it go six months or so before they approve it, but they can approve it at any time. But now applications for transfer back to Canada are taking on average 14 to 16 months, and are requiring lawyers like John Conroy to sue the government to expedite the process.

That is part of the Conservative government’s culture war, of obstruction. They are renouncing all the kind of liberties and freedoms of social justice built up over the past 40 years. They are not anxious to take back the marijuana smugglers. Typically the Canadians in American prisons are smugglers.

It’s an unfortunate aspect of the Conservative government that they want to repeal that treaty legislation in the next session, so they are not longer obligated to repatriate Canadians.

Q – I know there have been other cases where the Canadian government has abandoned Canadians abroad.

America is changing so quickly, itself, too. California is going to have a vote on legalizing marijuana for adults. We could be in the ironic situation where I will be in a U.S. federal penitentiary in a state that will have legalized marijuana and will be taxing it and regulating it.

Q – So what does all this say? You’ve gone through this incredible process. The DEA came, marked you, you got arrested, and for five years now you been going through this. Here you are on the point of extradition. What does it say about our drug policy and our relationship with the US?

Well, it is a hint for the future. The Canadian government and the U.S. government are getting so integrated — and it is almost such that you have to be come integrated with them or you can’t do business with them… What they are doing there is unsustainable, on so many levels. The drug war is certainly unsustainable, and it is much worse than we are, and we are seeing the result of it.

Q – From their point of view, what point are they trying to make by your arrest and extradition?

It is a culture war. They are trying to intimidate people. We gave away about $4 million every year between 1995 and 2005 to all kinds of groups: activist groups, political parties. We gave a quarter of a million dollars to a drug addiction clinic, and what have you. These were great donations that were meant to spur a movement worldwide, and the DEA were aware of that, they have worldwide mandate and were aware of that. We were giving money to organizations all around the world for advertising, political parties, rallies, marches.

So eventually, [there were] court cases in Canada and in the United States. We even gave money to peace conferences, like at Jerusalem University for a peace conference between Arabs and Jews. So we were involved in every kind of philanthropy and it bothered them. I think that is why we were targeted.

There are many other seed sellers, but not ones as mouthy as I am. None of them are giving up money for political work. They are all pocketing. So it is interesting that in Canada no one else is being extradited for selling seeds, and no one is even being prosecuted. On my own block there are five other fellows selling seeds, and they are not being prosecuted. So I think what I was doing them annoyed them enough that they decided to come and get me.

Q – So they are making an example of you.

Well, also once you have an indictment, the process runs inexorably forward and deals with it. They came down from offering 40 years.

Q – Forty?

Yes, because the three charges come down with each 10-year mandatory minimums. You have to understand that what they are saying is that I am one of the biggest marijuana dealers in the history of the U.S. criminal justice system. They say that for every seed I sell they are equating it to a plant. So they are saying that I’m responsible for several million plants at a value of $3 billion. They are saying that I helped produced 1.1 million plants worth $3 billion. Which is a record well beyond anyone else.

But from my perspective, it is also the whole point of the revolution. It is a peaceful, botanical revolution, overthrowing the government with our slogan. What a great way to have to have revolution. Nobody gets hurt; everyone grows a lot of plants. Nobody dies. The DEA and I agree on the facts. I’m hoping that everything they say is true. So I’m in a real bind. I look at it as a great leap forward. Everyone is growing these plants, and they don’t have to go to the inner city to buy drugs. They don’t have to deal with crime elements; they can just grow in their backyard. Real professionals don’t use seeds to grow marijuana. So organized crime would never buy from me, there’d be no point. They all deal in cuttings, it is instant. So it was a good thing for people at home to grow.

Q – I know from the emails I got about your case over a number of years, that two big themes emerged. One is that people saw it as a sovereignty issue. How dare the U.S. reach its enforcement arm into Canada, charge a Canadian citizen for something that you would never have been charged with in Canada? I think the sovereignty issue has struck people and crosses political boundaries. The second issue is this principle of whether or not there is harm. People think of the justice system as responding to issues that involve responding to harm: if you hurt someone, beat someone up, murder someone, we have laws to deal with that. Where we are talking about consensual activities, when we are talking about harm not being done, then why is the weight of this massive system coming down on you?

Noam Chomsky, when he was asked about the drug war, he said the drug war has failed at all of its stated goals. That drug use is more common than ever before, prices are lower, purity is higher, organized crime is worse. Everything they claimed they want to stop in the drug war is much worse now. So clearly those are not the real goals of the drug war, those are only the stated ambitions of the drug war. The real goals are to marginalize minorities, keep the people in fear, having the security police prison state providing a lot wherewithal for government power, advancing and encroaching on government power and advancing the power of the police.

Now in those areas, in those unstated goals, they are moving forward. The police get more powerful, they get more privileges and rights, the they get to violate our constitutional freedoms, minorities are more marginalized, blacks, natives in particular end up in jail. So the unstated goals which you can’t say aloud, because that would be unpopular. To say that our job is to keep everyone under the thumb of the federal government so we do this and this. The RCMP had the French Canadians in the 70s, the trade unionists in the 30s, the RCMP needs a good group of people to keep under their thumb… They need to justify a massive federal police force, so they demonize, they are constantly asking for harsher laws, more money, more surveillance, associating everybody with organized crime, which is still a small amount of activity in the marijuana trade. It is all a form of state terrorism.

You brought up it up: sovereignty. We are integrating our sovereignty with the United States and this is a technique that they have pioneered, the kind of SWAT police system. It is not Canadian but we are getting more and more of it as we integrate. And then the harm principle. That is a 60s cultural phenomenon that the Harper government is very much against. When he started the war on drugs in 2007, he referred to his son asking questions about the lyrics of a Beatles albums, specifically Sergeant Pepper that he was then a year or two later was singing at the national arts centre. So how schizoid is that? On the one hand he is saying that we have a war on this culture and we need to have a war on this culture. And then on the other hand here he is singing it and reveling in it.

Q – We have had a really good struggle, battle here in Canada. We have made progress. For a long time a lot of the Americans that we worked with on this issue, they saw Canada as being more progressive, more liberal, moving ahead. And now we seemed to have moved back. It seems the tables have turned.

Greatly so. You have six state assembly people in Washington wanting to legalize marijuana with a bill. You have over a 100 in the state assembly in California supporting Bill 390 and wanting to legalize it there. You’ve got validations in Nevada in 2012, California at the end of 2010. You’ve got a cannabis café opened up in Portland, Oregon. You’ve got a 150 cannabis dispensaries opening up in Colorado in the last few months. See that is President Obama’s greatest achievement so far.

For all the criticisms he’s got this very important thing is going on. When George Bush was president and a local state or municipality wanted to advance their drug regime in a modernized way, he would oppose it. He would send someone out to stop it. They’d lobby it; they’d threaten to withdraw funding for it. That had a tremendous impact on the state’s ability to move forward with their own legislation for medical marijuana. Well, President Obama issued an order to Eric Holder, the Attorney General, saying the states are not to be interfered with. Any initiatives that the states pass — in any regards — not just medical marijuana, though that is the one that is most prominent, he gives them a promise that they are not to interfere with that. Well as a result of that there has been an explosion now. Michigan’s got dispensaries, Colorado has over a hundred emerge in the first month of 2010, Los Angeles they say alone has over 1,000.

Q – Whereas in Canada we are now going the other way.

We have over 4,000 people [nationally] with medical marijuana exemptions. California has half a million. In Canada we have 4,000 after 10 years. That is because the Harper government has been thwarting the intent of the courts, which was to make it a normal medial regime where anybody, like for getting a doctor’s prescription for any medical painkiller. Clearly with only 4,000 Canadians it hasn’t really happened.

Q – If we could turn to the more personal side for a moment. You’ve been in jail before.

Yes, arrested 25 times. Jailed 19 times.

Q – This will be the longest.

Oh, without question, yes.

Q – How do you prepare yourself for this?

The first thing I am always aware of is that I was very loved by my parents. They have both passed on now, but I grew up with a lot of love and my dad and mom really liked me, and were fans of mine and were always so encouraging that every day I feel luckier than many people, even though I am in jail. Because I’m in jail in my 50s.

It would be a terrible time to be in jail in your 20s, because those are such formative years. But by now my philosophy is set, I have a wide circle of people who love me, who care for me. So I didn’t ever suffer what I saw others suffer in general. Because everyone confesses to me. I know right off from the get go that most of them never had a chance in life. Most people I meet in jail, you know they were going to end up there. No father in their life, violence, chaos, disorder, homelessness at early age, bad decision about friends and drugs at an early age. You just don’t meet white-collar people. People who never had a chance end up there. For one thing it is humbling.

I had loving parents. I have a loving wife. I am surrounded by friends. So my life is still really stable, even though I’m sitting in jail. I can read. I can write. I’m not in any pain. Those are things that you are always grateful for. One time I was in pain when I was in jail and I was really miserable. But when you are not in pain in jail, and you can read and write. I tell myself that every day is still a good day. It could be much worse. Or you could be like so many of your fellow inmates, who are so much worse off.

Jodie – We do kind of just live in the day. We don’t really think about it. But at times you do get sentimental. But it isn’t running our lives.

Marc – Here is the thing, she really fell in love with me in my first time in jail. I would write furiously in the evening at Saskatoon correctional, from 10 in the evening to 2 in the morning. And then next day after my job, my seven-hour-a-day job cleaning the administrative centre for the prison workers for $5 a day, what they boasted was the highest salary they paid ever. And after I got in I’d read by diary entries to Pot TV, and they would record them and they’d put the audio blogs on, but then they’d give them to Jodie to transcribe.

J – One day our webmaster came up to us and said there is something new people are doing called blogs. He said you should do a jail blog… We needed someone to start typing and transcribing everything he said. So every night I would take the audio home and listen to everything he had to say, and transcribe.

M – She got to know me really well, because she’d see me on a daily basis. She would transcribe what I would read. I would read Malcolm X; I would read Martin Luther King. I went to a sweat lodge three times and that was a really great thing because it was the most demanding thing physically that I had ever done. At first I was really scared. But after I got through it three times I wasn’t scared at all. And that was the lesson about prison. Before I went in I was really scared. But after I came out I was thinking to myself ‘hey, I did that.’

J – And even now, after his 52 days at North Fraser, as soon as he got out we hardly remember what it was like.

Q – So you very much live in the day. What about for you Jodie. What will it be like for you?

J – I will be very busy. When he was gone I was so busy I didn’t have time to stop and be sad.

M – Jodie owns the company now. I’ve been training her for years to take over. She has 20 employees. She is involved in politics. She is writing letters all the time. She has to look after the Free Marc campaign. The great thing is that I’ve always wanted her to do this without me in her shadow. Sooner or later when you are political aspirations you have to establish yourself as your own person. So I keep telling her this is good for you and me too. I’ll be able to write my notes and memoirs and things you don’t have time to do. The great thing about prison is that you have lots of times for quality thinking… For me I reflect a lot and write extensively. You can’t have quality thoughts in this world. You and I are affected by people wanting your attention all the time. You can’t just think for four hours about ideas, and put them order and start writing. Who has four hours like that? In jail you can have that if you organize your time. You can have these thoughts and start telling a story. That is why a lot of great things are written in jail, because there is a quality thinking time.

Q – My last question. You have many supporters and followers. I think the momentum for changing our drug laws is gaining strength. It is broadening across society. What do you think the impact is, of what is happening to you, in relation to changes in drug laws in Canada?

It has had the effect of bringing people who don’t consume marijuana, or who may not be very interested in drug laws, become concerned because of the implications for sovereignty. For example, France does not extradite anyone, to anywhere, for any reason. French citizenship has value because they won’t extradite you. What is the value then of Canadian citizenship?

For more on Marc Emery click here and cannabis culture here.

Libby Davies is the MP for Vancouver East and the New Democratic Party spokesperson for drug policy.