Explore the evolving role of the cannabis activist
Jodie Emery is a polarizing figure in the cannabis space. To some, she’s a folk hero – a force for good, perennially protesting and questioning every figure with a prohibitionist bent. To others, she’s a sounding board of confusion and a prime example of all this industry should strive to avoid being – fast, brash and loud. One of the country’s most vocal and visible activists, Emery has come to personify the precarious fate of many of her contemporaries of late. As Canada confusingly readies to welcome the reform she’s long lobbied for, we caught up with Emery to discuss what the activist’s role will look like in the lead up to legalization.
Debate over the merits of dispensaries is heated across Canada right now. Do you see a distinction between the country’s pioneering compassion clubs and for-profit pop-up pot shops?
The original dispensaries laid the ground work by wanting to provide medical marijuana, because that’s far more necessary for those who are sick and suffering than those who want to use it recreationally. The recent dispensaries opening up, some of them are modelled under a strictly medical regime, whereas others are willing to provide to anybody who wants access. I feel that everyone has a right to access cannabis, whether they’re sick or healthy, whether able or disabled.
In the new framework, whatever that may look like, do you see dispensaries maintaining a medical role or transitioning to the recreational front?
I see a future where dispensary won’t even be a term that’s used that often. What’s interesting about the dispensaries and medical marijuana is we hear criticism from people saying dispensaries aren’t medical enough. That’s unfortunate but it’s only been the method because of prohibition. People weren’t allowed to go anywhere and relax with marijuana instead of booze… We have some in the marijuana industry who are probably not very good people in terms of connections to dangerous people, but once we legalize it and don’t criminalize it, the criminals will no longer be involved with it. Organized crime is everywhere, but let’s get them out of the pot industry!
Your husband Marc spent five years in American prison, a casualty of the War on Drugs. How frustrating is it watching Canadians continue to be prosecuted over a plant the government has pledged to legalize?
It drives me crazy to think that every nine minutes a Canadian is encountering a police officer for pot possession. In British Columbia alone, we spend $10.5 million every year on possession cases. That’s not trafficking or distribution – that’s just possession. To continue arresting Canadians and telling them they’re a criminal today but come back tomorrow and buy pot from us legally – in the meantime you’ll get a criminal record, you’ll lose your job, you might lose your kids, you’ll never go to America again, you can’t volunteer, you’ll lose your scholarship and get kicked out of university, you’ll pee in a cup – what is that about? That is wrong.
Former prime minister Jean Chretien called recently for immediate decriminalization. Why are we not heeding his advice?
I believe, and I know it sounds conspiracy theory-ish, the police in this country receive a huge amount of money to go after people in cannabis. It’s a low-hanging fruit. They’ve always campaigned against legalization. The point is cannabis is much safer [than alcohol] and we have police who are very worried about losing their budget in losing the ability to charge people for possession. It’s also very unfair that it disproportionately affects minorities. Marijuana prohibition was rooted in racism and it’s still a racist policy today. We’re not just legalizing it so businesses can thrive; we’re legalizing it because it’s wrong to criminalize people for it. That’s why I’m so passionate.
You made an official request to become part of the country’s legalization task force. While Health Minister Jane Philpott seemed amenable to the idea, Bill Blair quickly shot it down. Were you disappointed by that decision?
I was a little disappointed, just like the Liberals saying I wasn’t allowed to be a candidate for Vancouver East in the federal election. It doesn’t really matter, because the message is what’s really important.
What would your message have been?
The important thing you have to remember about legalization is you need people who are familiar with it. Right now, the Liberal Party is only speaking to former police officers and mental health and addictions experts. They’re not talking to marijuana consumers; they’re not talking to people who have actually paid a price through the criminal justice system while trying to legalize marijuana. To me, it’s almost insulting.
Is there a discrepancy between what Trudeau pledged and what’s playing out?
I don’t want to say they lied about legalization, but I will say they have a legalization framework document that they weren’t really following. It does allow for the growth of the tourism industry of medical marijuana. They shouldn’t tax marijuana like it’s a drug or alcohol – it’s not causing any harm. There’s no cost to society. In fact, in the United States it creates a cost savings because people use more marijuana than booze, and booze costs society violence and harm.
You’ve remarked that the government’s language is very “Harper… esque… all this language is worrisome because it suggests that we have a new form of prohibition.” What did you mean by that?
When I look at the language the Liberals are using, their talking points are: ‘We’re going to legalize marijuana to protect Canadians from harm.’ So there’s the first fallacy – marijuana’s not harming Canadians. ‘We’re going to severely strictly regulate access.’ So that’s not legalization either because the mandate of prohibition was to stop access, protect communities from harm, keep it away from the kids and punish people for growing it. Well, the Liberals have now said they want to introduce stricter punishments for those operating outside of the legal system. Well, why? Let them come forward, let them not be criminals. The majority of the craft cannabis in this country is not being produced by thugs with guns.
Do you fear, as Vancouver councilor Kerry Jang suggested, that the cannabis activist will be moved from the forefront of the culture to the fringes of this new industry?
They’ve always considered us to be the fringe, so it doesn’t really matter to me what Kerry Jang says. But just recently my vapor lounge, which has been operating for 10 years, got a notice from the city to close. We’ve got challenges, too. I’m dealing with difficult times. We’ve always dealt with authorities trying to snuff us out, but I believe in what I do. The U.S. government came and took my husband and took my man. I’m not going to back down. I’m not going to stop standing up for what I believe in.
What will the activist’s role look like after prohibition finally falls?
A year ago I was kind of worried because we were campaigning for the Liberals and everybody wanted it to be legal and I thought, ‘I haven’t had a debate about prohibition in two years now. I think I’m out of work.’ But then the details come out, and you know where the devil is. So we have to deal with those details because legalization can mean many different things. Alcohol is legal and every province can have different rules. We need to remember that cannabis is not a threat to people, not a threat to society. It’s far safer than most legal substances out there.
We interviewed Jodie at the Lift Expo in Toronto and transcribed this Q&A from the tape of our discussion. She was kind enough to review this copy and provide the accompanying links.
Here’s to Future Growth!
Photo by Tee Onek
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