Marc Emery, Civil Disobedience, and the Fate of the Cannabis Culture

September 17, 2010 by  

Tomorrow, anti-prohibitionists will hold “Free Marc” rallies around the globe. They will call for the release from prison of publisher and political activist Marc Emery, who was sentenced to five years imprisonment last week in a Seattle court for operating a mail-order cannabis seed business that served Americans – among others – from his store in Vancouver Canada. However, Emery’s written submissions to a sentencing judge last week have left some anti-prohibition activists thinking that Emery now condemns law-breaking and the civil disobedience that landed him in jail.

In a two-page September 8, 2010 written submission to his sentencing judge in Seattle, Emery concluded with the following:

I admit that I was arrogant in flouting United States law, your Honor. I felt there was a compelling humanitarian justification for such behavior, but I admit my zealous pursuit of what may be an honorable goal of repeal of a bad law blinded me from recognizing that my example of flouting the rule of law is a bad example to set for others. I promise to never advocate civil disobedience, or condone civil disobedience, or ever flout Canadian or US law ever again, and I accept responsibility for my actions.

That statement, or parsings of it, appeared in newspapers in the hours following Emery’s September 10, 2010 sentencing. From prison, Emery has written a blog entry explaining his sentencing submissions but some, remaining loyal to Emery, are essentially interpreting his submissions to be false or given under duress:

I was saddened to read on the weekend that Emery has promised to quit smoking pot if that will help get him home…come on, this is the Prince of Pot. Love him or hate him, Emery has been fighting to legalize marijuana in Canada for more than 30 years. But finally our government has broken him. It took the help of what’s considered the most powerful country in the world, but collectively they finally brought the bespectacled Emery to his knees.

One Emery admirer and anti-prohibitionist who continues openly to flout cannabis prohibition laws, in the spirit of Emery, responded to Emery’s submissions as evidence that “The Prince of Pot is DEAD”. Still others – perhaps because Emery has never been one to say anything other than what he really feels; or perhaps because they disliked Emery in any event – are blaming Emery for what they perceive as a folding under pressure. They are expressing feelings of shock, disappointment or betrayal that someone who continued to break the law despite suffering over 20 charges – and who thereby earned a reputation as a leader and inspiration in the anti-prohibition movement – now appears to be condemning the very practices that landed him in prison, even while millions of people, including many of his admirers, continue civilly to disobey cannabis prohibition laws.

For the better part of the last two years, I researched Emery’s history of activism as I produced the recently released documentary “The Principle of Pot”. I know the man’s history better than even most of his most loyal admirers. And, as preparations for the rallies of September 18th continue, I feel morally obligated to explain why all such concerns over Emery’s submissions concerning civil disobedience are entirely unwarranted. Facing the possibility of a life behind bars, Emery was certainly under pressure when he made the statements, but he did not lie to the judge. Emery has not betrayed those who currently continue to engage in civil disobedience. And, most certainly, the Prince of Pot is not dead. Indeed, the Prince of Pot is now more large and alive than he ever could have hoped to be while he was free, and the rallies held in his name must continue if the momentum he made possible is going to continue bringing popular culture to the point that cannabis prohibition can no longer find significant political support.

There is a line in one of Emery’s favourite novels – Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” – that applies in the current circumstances: “Within the extent of your knowledge…you are right.” In other words, without a full knowledge of the 30 year evolution of Emery’s political beliefs and strategies, one could be forgiven for believing that Emery has been broken, or that he now opposes civil disobedience as a means of effective social change. To re-assure the cannabis movement that Emery’s submissions are not an about face, and that they change nothing, I below provide a brief historical overview of that evolution. Those who want a more fulsome and entertaining understanding of Emery’s history are strongly recommended to watch my full length documentary on the subject, titled “The Principle of Pot“.

1980: Running for Office Is Not Enough, Especially If You Have the Libertarian Nomination

Emery’s earliest efforts to effect social change were in the form of running for office. In 1980, his effort as a Libertarian Party of Canada candidate failed to garner him a significant percentage of the vote. Efforts to motivate fellow libertarians thereafter met with limited and frustrating success. He left the Libertarian Party and became active with friend and colleague Robert Metz in the provincial Unparty, a registered libertarian party formed by those who had emerged from the wreckage of an internally conflicted Ontario provincial Libertarian Party.

1981: You’d Better Toot Your Own Horn, Because Nobody Else Will Toot It For You

In 1981, while working to build a riding association for Unparty, Emery was actively fighting taxes. The local paper – The London Free Press – did not give him the coverage he thought his views and efforts deserved. He decided he need his own podium, and turned to publishing. In just three months, he found investors, and launched his own newspaper: The London Tribune. Early issues were popular and competed favourably with The London Freedom Press. They dropped journalistic bombs on the London establishment. However, before long, those bombs had the paper’s shareholders demanding that the paper stop exposing waste and corruption – in which some of their friends and political allies were allegedly involved – and instead limit itself to the sort of minimally controversial pap that fills the A-section of most newspapers to this day, and that poses little threat to the status quo. Mortified, Emery pulled out and let the other owners run the newspaper into the ground.

Emery immediately launched another paper – The Downtown London Metrobulletin – without the financial backing of those who could use their money to compromise the journalistic integrity of his paper. In it, Emery combined foot-pounding investigative journalism with philosophical insights. The publication made him the bane of every slum-lord and boondoggle-sponsor in the city. Emery willingly lost money on the publication (it was a free publication, without advertisers, and he delivered it for free), but it was pure, unadulterated, uncompromising, and powerful. What mattered to him was not the money, but the truth, and the justice that results from its exposure. When the The London Tribune finally collapsed barely a year after its launch, Emery bought its printing assets and, with Metz, published the tabloid London Metrobulletin, which focused primarily on commentary concerning the most controversial political issues of the day, including abortion, feminism, hate literature, and the like.

1980 to Present: Be the Story

As his publishing continued, Emery, with the assistance of Metz and others, advanced from reporting the stories, to being the stories:

  • “Business Improvement Areas” (“BIAs”) promised to impose another layer of taxation upon unsuspecting businesses in the towns and cities of Ontario, Canada. Emery and his colleagues launched anti-BIA campaigns – that continued into the late 1980s – across Ontario and successfully prevented the adoption of BIAs in many towns. Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion (now still mayor at age 89, she is running for re-election in 2010) was reportedly “accused the Freedom Party of “cashing in” on the dissatisfaction in the business community.” Freedom Party was having an effect, much to the chagrin of the ossified establishment.
  • A commissioned inquiry into pornography and prostitution had local feminists falsely claiming, in a letter received by Emery at his bookstore – that stores in London were selling child pornography. Emery offered $500 dollars to anyone who could find a store selling it. Of course, the claim having been false, nobody claimed the reward. Emery testified to the commission that the feminists and others opposed to what was actually perfectly legal adult erotica, depicting sex between consenting adults, were actually using false allegations about child pornography in an effort to get pornography banned or censored. The opponents, many religious, were “against sex” itself, he explained to the commission and to eager TV reporters.
  • In 1984, Metz (who by then was Unparty’s president) essentially inherited the Unparty. Metz, with Emery, changed the party’s name, philosophy, and mandate. Unparty was renamed Freedom Party. Unparty’s stance in favour of “less government”, and its sympathies for anarcho-capitalism, were replaced with Freedom Party’s philosophy in favour of government that better defends every individual’s life, liberty, and property. Unparty’s lack of activity between elections was replaced by Emery’s focus on action. In fact, Emery became Freedom Party’s Action Director. As such, Emery launched a campaign that turned public opinion against the spending of over $100M taxpayer dollars on a London bid to host the 1991 Pan Am Games. Emery wrote a guide to explain that tax-funded sporting events always lose money. Together with Metz, he published a newsletter focused on the issue of taxpayer funding for the London bid, and the efforts to oppose it. Ultimately, the campaign succeeded (the games, ultimately, were hosted in Havana, Cuba).

1987: Discovering the History of Freedom – Civil Disobedience

In 1982, Canada had adopted a constitutional bill of rights titled the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which stated that every individual has a “freedom of religion”. In 1985, the Lord’s Day Act – a federal statute banning the opening of retail stores on Sunday – was held by the Supreme Court of Canada to be in violation of the Charter, and it was rendered of no force or effect. A similar decision was expected to be delivered by the court on December 18, 1986 with respect to a similar Ontario provincial ban on Sunday retail store openings. In anticipation of the decision, numerous Ontario retailers began opening their stores on Sundays, mostly to avoid missing out on the Sunday market share. In November of 1986, Emery launched a Freedom Party campaign supporting the freedom of people to buy and sell on Sundays, but he also opened his own London bookstore on Sundays, along with other retailers. He differed from his business colleagues in two ways: he knew he would lose money by opening on Sundays, and he opened nonetheless solely to take a principled stand against the ban. Like many other retailers, Emery was charged for opening.

On December 18, 1986, the Supreme Court of Canada surprised the disobedient retailers by upholding Ontario’s version of the Sunday shopping ban. Almost all retailers agreed to obey the law, as a result. However, Emery refused to give up and told the media that he would open his store on the following Sunday to give books away for free, saying he would rather go to jail than pay any fine he received for doing so. Emery was fined: he had demonstrated the government to be a Grinch that would not even allow a Santa to give away books at Christmas time.

Over the course of 1987, Emery would find himself fined and fined again for opening his store on Sundays. And the media were watching: he found himself on the front page of the Toronto Star for having called organized religions the “real criminals”, they having pushed for – and pushed to maintain – the ban on Sunday shopping.

In the summer of 1987, Emery launched a Freedom Party campaign to collect garbage for free during a strike by London garbage collection workers. Collecting garbage without a license to do so is illegal. Angry unionists made anonymous calls to Emery, threatening to place battery acid and bombs in the garbage he was collecting. Emery told them to “fuck off”, and bravely followed through on his plan, without suffering a scrape. Emery’s and Freedom Party’s opposition to laws giving unions a monopoly on labour services met with popular support. The effort scored Emery and Freedom Party national news coverage.

Indeed, the year 1987 marked the beginning of an important turning point in the evolution of Emery’s thoughts about what works when trying to effect social change. Perhaps owing to having found himself charged during the mass violations of the Sunday shopping ban, Emery spent 6 months researching the history of freedom. To his surprise, he found that the repeal of bad laws – from laws that permitted slavery, to tea taxes, to laws against the promotion of contraceptives and laws against abortion – had virtually always happened only after one or more people chose deliberately to violate the law. On an issue by issue basis, change followed only civil disobedience. He published the results of his research in the form of a 1988 Calendar of Individual Freedom (which he edited and enhanced for 1989 editions in Canada and the USA).

1988: People Will Rally Behind a Good Man Wronged by a Bad Law

Believing his Sunday Shopping fines to be contrary to a more recently enacted section of the Charter (section 15), Emery finally got the opportunity to challenge one of the fines in court in February of 1988. Though it was clear to most people that the ban was religiously motivated (like the Lord’s Day Act), his challenge failed and he was ordered by the court to pay the $500.00 fine (all other fines were dropped at a subsequent hearing). True to his word, Emery refused to pay the fine and spent four days in a London jail. He was released only after supporters contributed “pennies for principles” to pay his fine and get him out of jail.

1988: The High Price of Disobedience – The Price of Freedom?

Emery learned, however, that civil disobedience can result in the loss of things that nobody can restore. Within a couple of weeks following his release from jail, his common law wife of 7 years – and the children he had so loved and raised as a father – left him due to the amount of time he dedicated to his causes. Most people would never have let the pursuit of freedom consume so much of their lives that they would lose those nearest and dearest to them. Such is especially true when the effort results in no tangible reward: no profit but loss; no elected office, but electoral defeat; and love and admiration met in equal or superior measures by hatred, derision, or pretended indifference. Emery was crushed by the loss of his first wife and family, and understandably found himself taking a bit of time to build up steam again. However, the loss arguably made him even more defiant, and more resolved than ever to discover and pursue the means to greater individual freedom for all.

1989: Break a Bad Law So That You Can Fight a Bad Law in Court

In 1989, the rap group 2 Live Crew was making headlines with a new album – As Nasty As They Wanna Be – featuring vulgar, sexually explicit lines (notably, it included an audio excerpt from the movie “Full Metal Jacket”: a scene in which a prostitute offers to American soldiers “me so horny…me love you long time”). The album was banned in several U.S. states, and in Canada. It was popular. Emery, having fought censorship before, imported the banned album, and issued a media release to police telling them he was selling the album in his store. The police obliged: Emery was charged in October of 1990. The result was news coverage not simply about Emery, but about the bad law he was challenging. It was news coverage that he had never enjoyed to such an extent as a result of election efforts, and the coverage generated public discussion about the ban, and the impropriety of censorship in general.

November 1990: Civil Disobedience and Court Challenges, Not Elections, Yield Freedom

In September of 1990, Ontario had been in the midst of another provincial election. Emery was still associated with Freedom Party, but he decided against running as a candidate. At a Freedom Party dinner in November of 1990, held just weeks after his charge for selling the 2 Live Crew album, he would give a speech that implicitly explained his decision:

Democracy’s a piece of shit in my opinion…I mean, the whole democratic process is garbage. We run in elections every year, and we appeal only to the disaffected because the vast majority of people don’t give a darn. They’re too confused to know what the hell they want. And, when they’re given the power to rule someone else’s lives they’ll seize that like they do in any kind of panic situation; they grasp at straws. To me, there’s only one way to get social change and, historically, this is the only way I’ve ever noticed. And it certainly worked for me…The only reason we got rid of slavery in the United States is because people went and broke the law and helped the slaves get free. They just took ’em. They just disobeyed the law – the Fugitive Slave Act – and they brought them over and they said ‘to hell with you, put me in jail and we’ll have a civil war’. You know, the reason the abortion laws were changed was because doctors performed the abortions anyway, even if it was against the law, and said ‘I don’t care, charge me, eventually it’s ‘gonna come down’. And…you look at every kind of law, from…prohibition: people drank anyway…they just said ‘Fine, go ahead, charge us, do what you can’, but eventually the law was changed because people broke it; disobeyed it. Historically, every good thing that happened in our society with social change, is because people disobeyed the bad law and went ahead and did want they want to anyway! And, they made their point to the public by saying ‘I don’t care about the consequences, this is too important to me to worry about some petty jail term or some fine or some embarrassment of the court. It doesn’t concern me. I don’t care, I’m going to go ahead and do what I want anyway.’ And that, when you think about it folks, is the only way we got anything good in this whole society. Nothing good has come from democracy. No great change ever occurred because some politician wanted it to.

Years of journalism and years of political action charged with political and economic arguments had not borne the electoral fruit that Emery wanted in the short term. He had run for office four times (once as a federal Libertarian candidate, twice as a candidate for alderman, and once as a Freedom Party candidate), always promoting more individual freedom and better government, but election wins eluded him. Emery concluded that the election of a party that advocated individual freedom in general required a major change in the way people thought about society. He had lost any hope that such a change would occur:

So the bottom line is, if you want social change, forget about elections. Forget about convincing your neighbour: he’s too busy doing other things to worry about some intellectual argument about why we need a dramatic revolutionary change of the intellect. It’s just not gonna happen. If you want to use your time effectively you do what I do. You just say “fuck you, I’m gonna break the law. Give me 10 days of court time. Give me 3 weeks of non-stop publicity. I wanna talk to everybody I can get to about why this is a bad law, why this law cannot co-exist in a free society, why I refuse to obey it, and why I’m encouraging everybody else to disobey it. And if you let people like me go on forever you’re gonna have a revolution on your hands. So my advice to you is stop fucking around with me and get rid of this bad law”. That’s how you’re gonna get significant social change.

Emery explained that “it’s hard to dislike someone” who engages in such honest and forthright disobedience of a bad law; that it is easy to sympathize when such a person is arrested, charged, or penalized for engaging in such civil disobedience; that it is easy to admire such a person. He continued:

Fuck this democracy. Get out and break those god damned laws!…and believe me, any law that bugs you won’t be there in 10 years because there will be other people who see your example, and they’ll say “Darn right, I can do that”. So enough of this conversation about what the problems are. The problems are so immense, just pick one! And go ahead and disobey it.

Days after the speech, Emery resigned from the Freedom Party executive. Emery’s political philosophy was now in stark opposition with Freedom Party’s belief that government is necessary for a free society, as the maker and enforcer of objective law upon which, in Freedom Party’s view, freedom depends. To continue to work with Freedom Party and to tow the party line would require a violation of his own integrity, or a violation of Freedom Party’s. The separation was amicable.

However, Freedom Party’s philosophy was not the main reason for Emery’s departure. The bigger reason was that Freedom Party was a political party per se. Emery told the press that he thought Canada would be better off without a government, and that his views – as an anarchist – were now such that he could not participate in any political party.

Emery would now stop trying to change peoples’ minds about freedom in general. He would spend no more time with election campaigns and political debates. He instead would pick just one bad law, and violate it openly, honestly, and in full public view so that others would follow his example and break other bad laws. His new theory was that his civil disobedience would be contagious, and that the breaking of numerous bad laws by an increasing number of bad-law breakers was the only way toward what he believed to be a free society: a society in which government and its bad laws ceased to exist.

1990-1992: Police Won’t As Readily Charge Those Breaking Law to Fight It In Court

In the spring of 1991, Emery was given a conditional discharge with respect to his charge of having violated the law that made selling the 2 Live Crew album a criminal offence. He remained confident that he was on the right track, strategically, and he launched an appeal of the decision in which he would challenge the constitutionality of the law in question.

The censorship issue was an issue perfectly suited for Emery’s anti-government, libertarian strategy, because censorship is one wrong for which only a government can be blamed. As such, it would become the focus of Emery’s activism for years to come. On the heels of his charge for selling the 2 Live Crew album, and his resignation from Freedom Party, Emery quite accidentally ran into another example of censorship that would change the course of his life for decades to come.

In 1990, while reading a book by Jack Herer titled “The Emperor Wears No Clothes”, someone came up to Emery and told him that the book he was reading was banned in Canada. In 1988, the Canadian government – as a Canadian concession to the United States’ war on drugs – had banned the publication or sale of magazines such as “High Times” (a magazine that opposed marijuana prohibition and that arguably romanticized marijuana). Herer’s book, which shed light on the murky history of cannabis prohibition, was similarly banned.

Emery had tried marijuana in 1981, but he was not a marijuana smoker and he had actually been one to condemn the use of cannabis, based upon mainstream media reports of it having harmful effects. Magazines and books like High Times and The Emperor Wears No Clothes changed Emery’s opinions about the effects and propriety of using cannabis. He did a bit of legal research, and discovered that not only was such literature banned, but the criminal penalty for selling it was fifty times greater than the penalty for possessing cannabis itself. As he saw it, telling the truth about cannabis and the history of its prohibition was seen by the government to be a bigger threat or wrong than the use of the substance itself.

Just as he would not allow the establishment to quash his journalistic efforts to tell the public the truth about community graft and corruption, Emery decided not to allow the government to censor information about cannabis and the history of its prohibition. He imported copies of High Times and Freak Brothers magazines and The Emperor Wears No Clothes book, and issued media releases telling the police that he would be selling the banned literature in his bookstore. However, this time, the police did not take the bait: the police did not come to charge him. So, in late 1991, he set up shop in front of the London Police station and attempted to get himself charged so that he could challenge the ban in court. Police still refused to charge him, instead looking on passively over a huge crowd assembled outside of the police station to hear Emery condemn the ban, and the war on cannabis in general. To preserve the ban, the police implicitly refused Emery the ability to challenge the law in court.

1992: Courts Are No Place to Fight For Freedom

The police had demonstrated one problem associated with the approach of trying to challenge bad laws in court: police could keep a person out of court as easily as they could send a person into one. Emery’s appeal of the 2 Live Crew court decision was to reveal another problem. In April of 1992, the appeal court dismissed Emery’s challenge concerning the constitutionality of the law banning the sale of “obscene” records like that made by 2 Live Crew. Just as Emery was convinced that voters would not vote for freedom, Emery concluded the freedom could not be won in the courts, either, not even if one is armed with a brand new Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

1992: One Man, Standing Alone, Under Fire

Perhaps equally disheartening was Emery’s observation that he was out there breaking laws, taking chances, getting charged, et cetera, yet even his strongest and most loyal admirers were not following his example. They were not going out and breaking other bad laws. Emery began to realize that almost nobody else had the will and courage he had to use civil disobedience to fight bad laws. Admiration for his efforts, and sympathy for the way the government charged, fined, and imprisoned him was not enough to make civil disobedience contagious. That lack of courage, or indifference, was the fatal flaw in his broader strategy for achieving a freer society. Absent other acts of civil disobedience by others, he saw no point in continuing his libertarian, anti-government crusade alone. He packed up with his new common law wife and family, and moved to Asia, where he would stay and enjoy life for almost 2 years.

1994: From Civil Disobedience to Civil Rights

Essentially robbed of his property and savings while abroad, Emery was forced to return to Canada, almost penniless. Refreshed and recharged, he would do so with a new strategy.

The new strategy contained the successful elements of past strategies. He would start a publication. He would draw attention to his cause by breaking the law and being the story. He would get admirers to rally behind a peaceful and honest man punished by the government for doing something that harm’s nobody else. But he would no longer do it so as to win an election or to challenge a bad law in court. He would no longer do it so as to encourage other people to break other bad laws. His focus would not be the promotion of civil disobedience, but the organization of those who are already civilly disobedient; those who are already breaking just one bad law on a regular basis, and who are frequently fined, expropriated, or imprisoned for doing so. Inspired by the successful examples of Ghandi and Martin Luther King, his new strategy was to identify and unite such law-breakers as a group that is being discriminated against, harassed, marginalized and mistreated by government. He would take on the job of civil rights leader.

Emery would need to identify the correct bad law; the law that a great number of people were violating; the law for which they were being most harshly punished. The decision was easy: marijuana prohibition. Millions of people in Canada hold criminal records for cannabis-related offenses and thousands are imprisoned for such offenses. Families are torn apart by laws that treat cannabis use as something worse even than murder. Besides, Emery was already familiar with the relevant laws, and knew how to fundraise for such a campaign.

Emery remembered that, while in Asia, he had been reading about the then recent race for the leadership of the federal Progressive Conservative Party. Both front-runners – Kim Campbell and Jean Charest – admitted to having smoked marijuana (just months after Bill Clinton admitted smoking, but somehow not inhaling, pot – insert eyeroll here). He had also been reading that Vancouver had the greatest percentage of pot smokers in the world. So he decided that Vancouver would be the centre of his campaign. He moved there, and began raising seed capital by resuming his sales of the still-illegal High Times magazine, and a book for new cannabis cultivators titled Grow Your Own Stone. Within three months, he had saved enough money from the magazine and book sales to open up his own head shop, which he called Hemp BC. It sold not only banned pot literature, but also banned pot paraphernalia such as pipes, bongs, and the like.

Indeed, Emery became Canada’s biggest distributor of High Times within months. He used some of the money he earned from the sale to finance a constitutional challenge to the law. In the fall of 1994, the ban on cannabis literature was struck down as unconstitutional. As a result, major distributors moved in and took over most of Emery’s High Times distribution market share. That did not worry Emery though. Returning from a “Cannabis Cup” marijuana quality contest in Amsterdam, Emery decided to follow the example of Holland’s Ben Dronkers, and become North America’s biggest and greatest retailer of high-quality cannabis seeds. It was technically a crime to sell cannabis seeds in Canada, but nobody had ever been charged.

Profits from Emery’s seed sales made it possible for him to start his own magazine, Cannabis Culture; to open an Amsterdam-like Cannabis Cafe (where one could buy such things as hash brownies); and, in 2000, to start one of the worlds first internet video sites, Pot TV. His magazine, and his seed selling and other businesses, thrived. Almost all of the millions of dollars he made from the sale of the seeds were used to finance anti-prohibition groups, to finance anti-prohibition ballot initiatives, to finance anti-prohibition politicians, to subsidize the legal defence of those charged with cannabis offenses; etc..

There was an explosion of marijuana cultivation in the USA and Canada, with much of it traceable to Emery’s high-quality seeds. With Emery and his customers planting the “seeds of freedom”, governments were blowing cash in an ever-expanding, increasingly unjustifiable weed-whacker effort that could never hope to keep up with expansion in the cultivation of cannabis.

Emery became the first person in Canadian history to be charged with selling cannabis seeds, though all he received as a sentence was a small fine. To date, Canadian cannabis seed sellers still face perhaps a $200 fine for selling seeds. Yet, under U.S. law, Emery at all times faced a sentence as severe as the death penalty, were he charged. Knowing that – and frustrated by the fact that Canada’s crown attorneys had no interest in prosecuting Emery for his seed sales any longer – in 2005, Emery’s political opponents were successful in having him charged, in Canada, for violating U.S. cannabis prohibitions. Last May, Canada’s Justice Minister surrendered Emery to the U.S. for extradition. Last week, Emery was sentenced to five years imprisonment, as part of a plea deal.


It is important to keep in mind that, when Emery came back to Canada in 1994, his new strategy was to function as chief representative of the millions who, daily, did the same thing he did: violate cannabis laws. His role was not to inspire them to break the law, but to be the point man for the movement he was bringing together and organizing. By making himself the focus of media attention, he made himself a high profile example of how government abuses – or threatens to abuse – those who peacefully disobey cannabis prohibitions. And, with each raid of his store, and with each high-profile interview in A-list media (everything from Rolling Stone Magazine, to Time, to The National Enquirer, to the front page of the Wall Street Journal), the public grew more sympathetic of the anti-prohibitionist view. They saw an honest, clean cut young man, out not to seek a big profit for himself, but to save millions of people from fines, expropriations, imprisonment, and the breaking apart of families. Emery having financed, promoted, and drawn media attention to giant smoke-ins across the country, police were pressured not to arrest demonstrators, but to defend them and their peaceful political expression at major outdoor venues like Queens Park in Toronto or the Art Gallery in Vancouver.

Even the non-smoking public’s views toward marijuana changed as a result efforts that were made possible, and successful, by way of Emery’s money and his ability to keep cannabis prohibition on the media’s front-burner for almost 20 years. Consider that, in 1975, when Emery opened his London bookstore, approximately one quarter of the Canadian public opposed cannabis prohibition. Now: the majority of Canadians oppose prohibition.

It is hard to deny it. Setting himself up as the point man for the anti-prohibition movement – a high-profile sacrificial lamb – he also funded the movement, organized it, gave it a high-profile voice in the media, and gave millions of civilly disobedient cannabis users the world over a concrete symbol to unify behind: the Prince of Pot.

Marc Emery is the man. The Prince of Pot is the symbol representing millions. The imprisonment of the Prince of Pot is representative of the imprisonment, expropriation, or even killing of millions cannabis cultivators, traders and users. And if the Prince of Pot is freed, the millions he represents will share in a victory; one that may well spell the end of prohibition.

Consider, in that light, what it means for Marc Emery to say that he will not engage in civil disobedience: of course he won’t – he’s in prison. And he need never engage in it again: he has walked the walk – he has nothing he needs to prove – he’s the real deal. Consider also what it means for Emery now to say that he will not promote or condone civil disobedience: with respect to the cannabis issue, he never needed to do so, because he was not creating cannabis law-breakers, he was simply organizing and representing people who already are civilly disobedient: they don’t need any encouragement to cultivate, trade, or smoke cannabis. Therefore, even without participating in civil disobedience, and without advocating or condoning civil disobedience, Emery’s role remains intact: he, as the Prince of Pot, continues to represent cannabis users around the globe; users who – because of his efforts and enduring symbolism – remain more unified than ever before, and more committed than ever before to the demise of cannabis prohibition. They need only to continue their refrain – “Free Marc Emery!” – to continue along the road to freeing themselves.


11 Responses to “Marc Emery, Civil Disobedience, and the Fate of the Cannabis Culture”

  1. Wayne Phillips on September 18th, 2010 1:03 am

    The article in question (“I was saddened to read on the weekend . . .”) and a bit of research also demonstrated how “civil disobedience” translated into “criminal disobedience” and how that magically transformed into Emery promising to quit smoking pot.

    For Marc Emery to say that he will not engage in civil disobedience, like the author implies, states the obvious and little else.

  2. Darren Miles on September 18th, 2010 4:22 am

    can somebody explain to me what i just read? i’m having a little trouble understanding. FREE MARC EMERY!!!!!!!

  3. Darren Miles on September 18th, 2010 4:30 am

    lol i’m a stoner, but i reread it. if he did say or write any such thing, he was probably waterboarded. he can’t quit, but he can retire.

  4. JayelleFarmer on September 18th, 2010 6:49 am

    An excellent essay, Paul and thank you so much for writing this.

    The points that you have covered give an in depth analysis of the situation and provide much-needed clarity vis-a-vis Marc and civil disobedience.

    >And he need never engage in it again: he has walked the walk – he has nothing he needs to prove – he’s the real deal.

    We love you, Marc. We hope that you’ll soon be home with Jodie.


  5. Russell Barth on September 18th, 2010 12:17 pm

    Harper and other prohibs will see Emery’s subjugation as a sign of our collective weakness.

    “See?” they will boast. “All these stoners need is a firm hand from a stern father and they fall right in line.”

  6. ken jackson on September 18th, 2010 3:13 pm

    Marc Emery is a Political Prisoner. Nothing less. Harper Government is Devils Spawn. FREE MARC EMERY

  7. Christopher Goodwin on September 19th, 2010 1:15 am

    Paul, I’d like to comment on this blog, as you seem to highlight the history of Marc Emery very well, and yet EVERYTHING about The Prince Of Pot seemed way off.

    “I know the man’s history better than even most of his most loyal admirers. And, as preparations for the rallies of September 18th continue, I feel morally obligated to explain why all such concerns over Emery’s submissions concerning civil disobedience are entirely unwarranted.” Paul McKeever

    You try to claim the dislike of Emery, folding under pressure, or his condemning civil disobedience as valid concerns his supporters have, as apposed to the appropriate place those concerns deserve, on the aggressors.

    “Conclusion.. It is important to keep in mind that, when Emery came back to Canada in 1994, his new strategy was to function as chief representative of the millions who, daily, did the same thing he did: violate cannabis laws. His role was not to inspire them to break the law, but to be the point man for the movement he was bringing together and organizing.” Paul McKeever

    Did I read that right? “His role was not to inspire them to break the law”. Far from it actually, his entire goal, as far as The Prince Of Pot is concerned, was to Get People High and Over Grow The Government. In every speech and action, he focused on Civil Disobedience in every form. Marc saw millions as scofflaws, avoiding arrests, hiding their use, as the cannabis culture was being destroyed. His inspiration, was to get everyone to be Open, Honest, Transparent and Disobedient.

    “Emery having financed, promoted, and drawn media attention to giant smoke-ins across the country, police were pressured not to arrest demonstrators, but to defend them and their peaceful political expression at major outdoor venues like Queens Park in Toronto or the Art Gallery in Vancouver.”

    Um, what? I would hazard to say, “demonstrators” face 10 times more arrests, and convictions than the scofflaws individually. Today, I get texts all morning, 10-11am, “A Dozen Bike Cops out front of US CON”, “They say they’ll arrest anyone smoking”, “2 cop cars and a wagon just pulled up”, and what do the Cops say when we arrive, “move over there or you will be arrested”, “I want you all to Separate into Med users and Recreational users”, “Move your truck or you’re under arrested and we’ll tow the vehicle”… As apposed to popular belief, cops do NOT DEFEND demonstrators. We are under constant attack. Queens Park was a festival, and yet during the real Demonstration, The Global Marijuana March, The Prince Of Pot announced we would be marching past Wellesley Street, to College Street and demand cops stop arresting cannabis users out front of Police 52 Division. Toronto Police blocked that intersection with 10 cop cars and over a dozen horses. we stalled for 5-10min, and they were going to start mass arresting people…

    “Consider, in that light, what it means for Marc Emery to say that he will not engage in civil disobedience: of course he won’t – he’s in prison. And he need never engage in it again: he has walked the walk – he has nothing he needs to prove – he’s the real deal. Consider also what it means for Emery now to say that he will not promote or condone civil disobedience: with respect to the cannabis issue, he never needed to do so, because he was not creating cannabis law-breakers, he was simply organizing and representing people who already are civilly disobedient: they don’t need any encouragement to cultivate, trade, or smoke cannabis. Therefore, even without participating in civil disobedience, and without advocating or condoning civil disobedience, Emery’s role remains intact: he, as the Prince of Pot, continues to represent cannabis users around the globe; users who – because of his efforts and enduring symbolism – remain more unified than ever before, and more committed than ever before to the demise of cannabis prohibition.”

    Again, Marc Emery more than advocated civil disobedience, he demanded it. The Prince Of Pot wouldn’t have it any other way. You may have KNOWN Marc Emery, but I know The Prince Of Pot. The man who smokes 4 foot bongs, hands out thousands of joints, pays people to openly break cannabis laws, invites everyone to do it with him, …he is 8 Feet Tall, …and Can Smoke A Pound a Day… Marc Emery WILL promote civil disobedience again, and again. You have it all wrong. With respect to the cannabis issue, he needed to do so, because he was creating OPEN cannabis law-breakers, he was NOT simply organizing and representing people who already are civilly disobedient: AS THERE WAS NO ONE WHO WAS ALREADY BEING CIVILLY DISOBEDIENT… they needed encouragement to cultivate, trade, or smoke cannabis OPENLY. Marc Emery WILL engage in civil disobedience again, and again… In Prison or Not, he is the real deal..

    Therefore, If The Prince Of Pot no longer has the will to engage in civil disobedience, even if the activism of Marc Scott Emery continues, The Prince Of Pot is DEAD… IF Emery Does Not participate in civil disobedience, and Does Not advocate or condone civil disobedience, ever again, Emery’s hero persona The Prince Of Pot is for ever DEAD…

    Up In Smoke Cafe was not meant to last, neither was Hemp BC, or hashmob, or any of it. Its all sacrificial. Many people ask me How Vapor Central is Open? How do you get away with IT? What loop hole do you use? The simple answer is, We don’t get away with anything, We don’t have any loop hole, We only exist and stay open, Because of our willingness to unlock the door everyday and take the ultimate risk. On its face, many people tend to think its cool or sick to work at VC, and taking a risk in life doesn’t seem so bad, it actually seems fun. YET, when the cops come up those stairs, and says “If I come back and there is cannabis in plain sight, I will arrest you” we have a decision to make.

    On civil disobedience specifically, I have a few thoughts… First, my life is dedicated in fate to that pursuit, that tactic… I must disobey the worst injustice in my life. Prohibition. I have already given up to the movement, any chance of parenting my children, or traveling, or as an employer in any practical way. Lawfull means are a poor vehicle for reform because things like voting follow real change from actions of disobedience, it does not precede or cause it.

    In one scene of The Prince Of Pot movie outside the court house with Jodie, when she or a lawyer asked you if the US might want Marc’s silence on civil disobedience, and Marc rightly replied, that it would be impossible. And others scenes of Marc saying, how at the end of his activism, he would never be remorseful, would never recant. How when he gets in front of a judge, it will be a major moment in which he will not say sorry.

    Those words Emery wrote to the judge hurt, but not in the way most people think. It just sucks. What a shitty middle ground for The Prince Of Pot. Essentially, it was not Marc Emery’s crime that must be stopped, it was his alter ego, The Prince of Pot’s civil disobedience that must die.

    The point is that Civil Disobedience, someone intentionally breaking a bad law, has resulted in virtually every advancement in individual freedom… Are you willing to pay the price…? To intentionally risk the death of a major park of yourself…

    “What have you sacrificed for your freedom today” Marc Emery

  8. Paul McKeever on September 19th, 2010 2:14 am

    Hi Chris:

    I don’t think that anyone’s concerns about Marc’s words are “valid”. To the contrary, my essential argument is that there is nothing to be concerned about.

    I agree with you that Marc certainly encouraged law breakers not to hide their activities; to do what they ALREADY were doing, but to do it openly and honestly. My point was: those people were breaking the law already…they already were civilly disobedient, even if they were hiding their activities from view. Any promise he makes to a judge telling the judge that he will not advocate civil disobedience will not change the fact that people will continue to use cannabis contrary to the law, just as they did before Marc got involved.

    Re: defending demonstrators – while writing that, I had in mind numerous instances where demonstration leaders thanked police for ensuring that they could conduct their demonstrations safely, and I also had in mind the incident this summer where someone brought a gun to a peaceful rally in Toronto, and police kept the crowd safe by arresting the fella. I’m not suggesting that police wouldn’t arrest people if they could, and I’m quite aware that they are more prone to making arrests when large crowds and media aren’t there. My point was that Marc created an atmosphere – and media attention – that “pressured” police not to arrest people. “Pressured”.

    As for whether the Prince of Pot persona is still alive and/or useful, I suppose we’ll have to agree to disagree. I think that the Prince of Pot continues to be representative of everyone else who might suffer a similar fate. He couldn’t be civilly disobedient right now if he tried, nor could anyone else in the same situation. A promise not to be civilly disobedient during ones incarceration is almost redundant.

  9. Christopher Goodwin on September 19th, 2010 2:53 am

    I agree that not every concern is valid.

    However, more than “to do what they ALREADY were doing”, Marc’s intention was clear, in thousands of statements, and everything I know of him, to “Find someone who doesn’t smoke and get them high”, on…e of his most famous lines that arouse praise, but he went much further than that. It’s fine to claim the stats went from 30% to 60% support, but what about usage rates. Does Marc not deserve that reference too? His debates on CC forums promoting it, and his disdain at anyone who suggests usage rates should be lower, are a few indications he wanted a lot more than to harness the already civilly disobedient. He wanted to create a thousand Marc Emery clones, running around saying “I Will Destroy The State”… a funny line, but true none the less.

    Demonstrators thanking police is a back handed compliment at best. I would say Fuck The Police is the battle cry. Btw, I promoted that 420 Smoke Out in Y&D Square, and the police did not keep the crowd safe by arresting the fella. A Med User and Rap Artist took the gun, and held him for 4-5 minutes before police arrived. I would suggest we didn’t need the police at all. Private security perhaps. Are we not capable of defending ourselves? And maybe even hire someone to actually protect us? And forget the usage rates, or support percentage, Since Marc Emery started civil disobedience, arrests have gone from under 10,000 to over 100,000… What is it that “pressured” police not to arrest people?

    “He couldn’t be civilly disobedient right now if he tried, nor could anyone else in the same situation. A promise not to be civilly disobedient during ones incarceration is almost redundant.”

    Um, well, where do I start. That there are more drugs in jail than out. Inmate Emery could definitely be exposed to drugs Free Marc couldn’t get. Whether likely or not, it is definitely possible that he has already smoked a joint in jail. Prisoner Justice Day. Hunger Strike. Secretly taping phone calls. Civil disobedience exists in prison, although rare, if the the Prince of Pot persona is still alive, I think those tactics, or ones similar are indeed likely. It’s not like 5 Years of Bail stopped him. So it stopped his Seed Sales. So What? And if your arguing specifics like he wont sell seeds while out on parole, I would find it hard to disagree.

    Marc Emery as the representative of the Cannabis Culture will never change, only because he wont allow it. That’s a very different debate than this one…

  10. AnnieOakley64 on September 19th, 2010 9:11 pm

    Very good article, Paul. I think it goes a long way to improving how some people want to see Marc as ‘negating’ his efforts all these years of activism. He was obviously just trying to appease the judge, in hopes that he would be returned to Canada as soon as possible and be with his loving wife, Jody. Who wouldn’t?

    I still respect Marc and ‘the cause’. I will never waver. Prohibition IS a BAD LAW and THAT is what we should all be focusing on, NOT what Marc said to the judge. That is just petty. There is a much bigger picture here, and petty squabbling does nothing to further the real cause here.

    1 Marijuana should NEVER have been made illegal in the first place.
    2. A Canadian should never have been allowed to be extradited to the US for a possible LIFE SENTENCE for something that our own gov’t could have stopped by simply charging him here and givng him another $200 fine.

    My goals;
    1. Get Marc home to Canada.
    2. End prohibition.
    3. Get rid of Harper.

  11. peter vieira on February 10th, 2011 8:03 pm

    I say Marc is a very wise man, and i do not care what anyone else says. I support the prince of pot till the end!!!

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