Marc Emery and wife Jodie embrace in the visitors’ area of U.S. medium-security prison in Yazoo City, Mississippi.
Photograph by: Contributed , Cannabis Culture
YAZOO CITY PRISON, Mississippi — Vancouver cannabis crusader Marc Emery may be facing two more frustrating years behind bars in the Deep South of the United States. But he’s more confident than ever he’s winning the war on drug prohibition.
The Prince of Pot believes the drug legalization campaign he’s waged for more than 30 years is already over at the "intellectual" level. And it’s only a matter of time before marijuana and other recreational drugs are sold in stores in Canada and the U.S. – and taxed and regulated just like liquor and cigarettes.
"The end of prohibition is close, five years for marijuana or less," he told me from inside the U.S. federal correctional complex where he’s serving a five-year term for selling marijuana seeds. "And I can take a lot of credit for it."
Crisply dressed in khaki prison fatigues and black boots, Emery said he was heartened that John McKay, the former U.S. attorney who helped put Emery in jail, has had a Saul-on the-road-to-Damascus conversion and is now championing a Washington State initiative to legalize pot.
He’s also encouraged that a raft of Canadian VIPs, including four former B.C. attorneys-general, have jumped on the decriminalization bandwagon.
"I’m running out of people who disagree with me anymore," the pot entrepreneur quipped, as we sipped pop together inside the visitors’ area of the massive, razor-wire-clad jail northwest of the Mississippi state capital of Jackson.
The 54-year-old activist, who once raised the ire of Canadian and U.S. cops by publicly flaunting his marijuana-smoking habits, even admits he doesn’t miss the weed that he first smoked in 1980, when he was 22.
"It’s the most common question I’m asked in letters and even among inmates here, but I have never once thought of marijuana in the actual in two years," he said in a prison email. "Not missed smoking it. In fact, I’ve never thought about it once."
Emery explained that this might stem from the realization that he misses nothing except his devoted wife, Jodie, who runs what remains of his once-thriving pot empire – which, he says, grossed $15 million between 1995 and 2005.
The 27-year-old Jodie, now owner and operator of Cannabis Culture on West Hastings, flies down from Vancouver to visit him every two to four weeks.
"I think of her every hour of every day," Emery said, adding he spends much of his time practising bass guitar and honing his skills as leader of Yazoo, an interracial rock band named after the prison’s rural hometown, known for its blues musicians.
"I never believed I would emerge from prison an accomplished musician, a band leader, playing music I have loved my whole life, with other far more accomplished and talented musicians," he said in another email. "This is a miracle that I’m very grateful for."
My prison visit, which Emery says is the first by any journalist in the two years since he’s been locked up in the U.S., wasn’t easy to arrange. And I wasn’t allowed to bring in a pen, notepad, tape recorder or other reporting tools. Taking pictures on the property was also a no-no, and my rental car was searched. But what really surprised me was how tanned and fit Emery looked compared to how he appeared when I last saw him on TV in Vancouver.
I asked him whether this wasn’t due to the fact that prison had forced him to give up marijuana (and that being caught with pot could lead to a whole range of punishments, including up to three months in solitary).
Emery insisted this was not so. It was simply that he was much less stressed and had far fewer legal/ money worries than when, at the helm of the world’s largest marijuana seed-selling business, he was facing the sobering prospect of extradition to the United States.
Judging by what he says and how he appears, he’s fitting well into prison life as the only Canadian among 1,700 mostly black inmates, many of them serving what appear to be cruelly long sentences for crack cocaine and other drug offences.
Coming from outside with no "cultural baggage" obviously helps, as it does for former newspaper publisher Conrad Black, another Canadian celebrity who’s been doing hard time in the U.S. south.
But Emery says prison life is probably harder on Black because he’s older and used to luxury in his life. "I come from a more working class/ middle class background so it’s not so difficult for me," he said.
The Mississippi climate is also in his favour.
Indeed, Emery says he far prefers the fresh air and sunny climate in the Magnolia State to the "morose" Vancouver weather.
"And I have never had an unkind word spoken to me by any inmate in two years," he said.
"And I am frequently asked, probably every day, for some help or information, as they think of me as a useful, knowledgeable person."
What perhaps misses most are fresh vegetables. However, little niceties are generally only a postage stamp away.
Yes, in the absence of cash, the $1 postage stamp is the universal prison currency.
And he says you can buy services like getting your hair cut, your cell cleaned, your running shoes washed or your headphones fixed for one to five stamps.
Smoking is officially prohibited, but contraband cigs tend to get broken up into four or five small cigarettes and sold for, say, stamps apiece. That means a single street cigarette can fetch $25 . . . with a couple of batteries and a piece of toilet paper serving as a makeshift lighter.
So life is not overly harsh. Indeed, Emery, who shares a cell, thinks he has fewer grey hairs now than when he did when he was in Vancouver.
"I didn’t know your hair could reverse its direction like that regarding colour," he told me. "I was losing my hair from 2002 to 2004. When I look at my hair, its thicker than it was some 10 years ago."
But is the natural-born showman, known in Vancouver for his take-no-prisoners outbursts, really a changed individual? Can a leopard change his spots?
Well, he says he’s matured and learned to tone things down: "Confrontation will get you nowhere good in prison."
Violence in a medium-security prison, though, is always just around the corner. And Emery tells me that only a couple of weeks ago a Hispanic inmate suspected of being an informant was bludgeoned half to death by two others. He was apparently beaten over the head by a metal door-locker lock inside a sock.
Emery’s official release date is July 9, 2014. But he could be free as early as next year, if Ottawa allows him to be transferred back to Canada.
On his return to B.C., he plans to have a big welcome-back bash outside the Vancouver Art Gallery, followed by a world tour with Jodie, including stops in Jamaica and Italy.
As for his career future, he says he’ll finish the autobiography he’s writing and try to become a radio talk show host, a job he used to do back in his hometown of London, Ont.
"One of the problems of the so-called entertainment right-wing radio shows I hear on many AM and FM channels here is they don’t respect facts or balance.
"The discussion is all one-sided, and often just derision, insult and talking in a circular manner," he said.
"I believe I can provoke but still welcome all sides in a discussion."
Like it or not, in other words, you’ll be hearing a lot more from Emery whatever band — or bandwagon — he’s heading.