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This Marijuana Activist Is a Hero to Me, and I Don't Smoke the Stuff

08/14/2014 12:11 EDT | Updated 10/14/2014 05:12 EDT
Don MacKinnon via Getty Images
VANCOUVER, CANADA - SEPTEMBER 10: Marc Emery addresses a crowd of four hundred that attended an anti-extradition rally held for him in front of the U.S. Consulate on September 10, 2005 in Vancouver, Canada. Marc Emery, leader of the British Columbia Marijuana Party, is facing extradition to the U.S.A for selling marijuana seeds on the internet. Emery attended one of many Free Marc Emery pot rallies across Canada, America and around the world. (Photo by Don MacKinnon/Getty Images)

It's not often that I disagree with Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente, but her recent column on Marc Emery ("Pot still fails the sniff test") triggered one of those rare occasions.

Unlike the "Prince of Pot," I don't use marijuana. I never have, and probably never will, even if it were to become legal for recreational use. But then, I don't use alcohol either. Slowing down my brain just isn't my cup of tea.

Nevertheless, I have been a staunch admirer of Marc's ever since I first met him, about 38 years ago, long before he began championing pot legalization. Marc has been a powerful force for liberty in Canada on several fronts.

For instance, he helped legalize Sunday shopping by operating his London, Ontario bookstore seven days a week, back when it was illegal to do so. He even went to jail over that issue, after refusing to pay his fines. That four-day stint proved to be merely a practice run for his later five-year marijuana-related imprisonment.

Marc challenged Canada's obscenity laws by selling the banned music tapes. He then racked up a freedom-of-speech victory by publishing a marijuana newsletter at a time when the Criminal Code forbade it. An Ontario court eventually struck down that law as contrary to the Charter.

Marc has also contributed to the welfare of his fellow Canadians by diligently reporting every penny of income from his marijuana seed business -- more than $4 million cumulatively over the years--and paying federal and provincial income tax on it (at least, if you believe that those governments will spend that tax revenue on Canadians' welfare, which is questionable -- but I digress).

Canada has changed radically since Marc first set out to legalize pot. There are now approximately 40,000 legal medical marijuana users, with some estimates saying there will be half a million in ten years' time. Last week's survey released by the Department of Justice showed that 70 per cent of Canadians want the law softened, either by legalization or decriminalization. Even the Fraser Institute (the free-market think tank whose name is usually preceded in media reports by the epithet "right-wing") published a report a decade ago describing the benefits of legalizing pot.

Marc plowed all of his seed sale profits into funding the legalization movement, keeping nothing for himself except what he needed to live on. He made a large donation of seed money (pun intended) to help organizers in Colorado. That state is now one of two (Washington is the other) that have legalized pot for both medicinal and recreational purposes. Another 21 U.S. states and the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana. Four other states have decriminalized it, reducing the penalty for possession to fines, rather than a jail sentence and a criminal record. Even John McKay, the former U.S. attorney who prosecuted Marc, has changed his mind and now publicly favours legalization.

While Marc didn't do this single-handedly, there is no question that he was a driving force in the movement. He is at least partly responsible for the fact that hundreds of thousands of people across North America now have legal access to a medication that helps relieve their pain and epileptic seizures. He can also take credit for keeping hundreds of thousands of people out of jail. He has achieved these victories at great personal cost, doing several stints in Canadian jails before his most recent U.S. imprisonment.

Ms. Wente said that Marc's no hero, but I disagree. He has shown exceptional courage and perseverance. He has made huge personal sacrifices. His actions have benefitted thousands, if not millions, of people. That's pretty heroic in my books.

But what about Ms. Wente's charge that Marc is "among the most obnoxious jerks in Canadian public life" and a "relentless self-promoter who's compared himself to Gandhi and Martin Luther King"?

Yup, Marc talks a lot. He talks quickly -- too quickly for some people to grasp what he is saying. Sometimes he talks when it's really somebody else's turn to talk . But where's the rule that says a hero has to be perfect? These are minor flaws, all things considered, especially since most of what Marc says makes extraordinarily good sense, and is something that people urgently need to hear.

I've always figured there was something different about the wiring in Marc's brain. I suspect his mind is perpetually in gear, throttle full open, searching for solutions to the foolish laws and injustices he sees around him. I think he needs marijuana to gear him down a notch, to let him relax, probably to help him sleep. But those are grounds for sympathy, not aversion. Being different has made him a criminal.

As for comparing himself to Gandhi and M.L.K., Wente's column was the first time I'd heard that particular criticism. So I tracked down the source: it's an interview that Marc gave from jail in 2009. He was explaining why he had been willing to lose his personal liberty for his cause. He said, "Every freedom fighter around the world, from Vaclav Havel (the president of the Czech Republic) and Nelson Mandela and Gandhi, all the people I admire -- Martin Luther King -- they had to go to jail to draw attention to [their cause], because injustice is something that can fan the flames of radicalism."

You can hear the interview here, starting just after the five minute mark. I don't find anything offensive about it. Like Gandhi, Marc has no assets. He gave away all of his seed business profits to fund the cause. He went to jail for the cause. He has never advocated or engaged in violence. And his actions have fanned the flames of radicalism, or at least the winds of change.

Bravo, Marc. I'm glad to hear that you have emerged from this ordeal with your spirit unbowed.

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