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'Prince of Pot' is at a low

The Canadian who thought his seed sales could upend the United States' war on drugs was extradited to Seattle and will likely face five years in federal prison.

June 11, 2010|By Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Vancouver, Canada — For years, his seed catalogs were scrutinized by discerning cannabis cultivators across the U.S. and Canada, much like the ladies of Cumbria might fuss over Chiltern's inventories of sweet peas and heirloom tomatoes.

There was Blue Heaven pot, capable of producing a "euphoric, anti-anxiety high," or Crown Royal, whose "flower tops come to a flat golden crown, sparkling with gems of THC," or Hawaiian Sativa, with its "menthol flavor that tingles the taste buds and tickles the brain."

The difference between Marc Emery's pot seeds and countless others on the market was that if you bought Emery's, he'd use the money to launch a cannabis tsunami across North America that would set the war on drugs adrift like a cork on a massive sea of weed.

"Plant the seeds of freedom, overgrow the government," Emery urged his clients. With a pot plant on every patio, he declared, violent drug gangs would see their livelihoods disappear and police would be reduced to "running around … chasing all these marijuana plants."

Sooner or later, he promised, "they will simply give up and change the laws."

Well, not yet. Emery, who U.S. authorities fingered in 2005 as one of the top 46 international drug trafficking targets, was ordered extradited by the Canadian minister of justice last month and relinquished to federal marshals in Seattle. He now faces a likely five years in U.S. federal prison.

"In fact I have done these things, so I admit my guilt," Emery said in an e-mail after pleading guilty in U.S. District Court to one count of conspiracy to manufacture marijuana. "We are winning, especially in the United States, and I can take a lot of credit for that.... When I am gone, or even locked up here in the U.S., my historical legacy is secure."

Here in "Vansterdam," where cannabis cafes, head shops and even a supervised needle-injection site are prominent features of downtown, pot is a multibillion-dollar industry. And Emery, a longtime fixture at political forums and downtown street rallies, is widely seen as one of its titans.

The extradition of the 52-year-old self-proclaimed "Prince of Pot" has sparked a sovereignty outcry across Canada, where supporters, civil rights advocates and even several members of parliament have demanded to know why he was handed over to the U.S. for an offense that Canada seldom prosecutes.

"It seems like the American war on drugs is just reaching its arm into Canada and saying, 'We're going to scoop you up,'" said Libby Davies, a member of parliament from Vancouver. "The whole thing has struck people as being over the top, harsh, unwarranted — and at the end of the day, what are they trying to prove?"

Canada and the U.S. have been on strangely opposite political trajectories when it comes to the war on drugs.

As early as 2003, the Canadian government appeared poised to decriminalize marijuana, which is regulated only federally in Canada, but backed down under U.S. threats to throw up punitive border controls.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative Party since 2006 has backed a series of bills, one now pending in parliament, that would mirror widely criticized U.S. policies and impose for the first time a mandatory six-month jail term on anyone convicted of growing six or more marijuana plants.

The U.S., meanwhile, is moving under the Obama administration toward a stronger focus on prevention and treatment. Fourteen states now allow medical use of marijuana, and California voters will decide in November on an initiative that would decriminalize adult possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and allow small-scale cultivation for personal consumption.

Emery became a target for police in both nations — in Canada because his frequent appearances on international television shows was an irritant to police; in America because his seed business, which at one point reached revenues of $3 million a year, was supplying marijuana-growing operations in at least nine states.

"Marc Emery happened to be the largest supplier of marijuana seeds into the United States," said Todd Greenberg, the assistant U.S. attorney in Seattle who is prosecuting Emery's case.

Emery believes he caught the eye of the Drug Enforcement Administration not because of his seeds but because of what he did with his revenue. Living in a rented apartment with no car and few personal possessions, Emery channeled most of the millions he earned into marijuana legalization and defense efforts across North America.

The Prince of Pot's seed money has helped start "compassion clubs" for medical-marijuana users across Canada, launch the Pot-TV Internet network, and fund lobbying organizations and political parties in North America, Israel and New Zealand.

Many of the state campaigns to legalize the medical use of marijuana in the U.S. did so with donations from Emery. He ran for mayor of Vancouver in 1996, 2002 and 2008, finishing a perennial fourth or fifth.

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