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The triumph of ideas

Ideas can change the world, but it isn't always easy to change minds. In Marc Emery's experience, given time and effort, good ideas do triumph over bad.

Marc Emery - April 4, 2008

My advice to anyone who wants to change the world is this: it happens one person at a time and it happens much slower than you think it ought to.

I first hammered an election sign into a front lawn for the 1968 Canadian federal election. I was ten years old and campaigning with my father, a United Auto Workers employee at 3M, the London, Ontario factory where he worked all his adult life in Canada. The 1968 election sign was in support of the London East NDP candidate Alec Richmond, our family’s lawyer, and it was during Trudeau-mania, so I learned about noble lost causes early in life. The Liberal won.

For the May 1979 federal election I campaigned for NDP candidate Rob Martin, a law professor at the University of Western Ontario. During an all-candidates meeting I listened to the Libertarian candidates Greg Utas, Richard Keyes, and an intense guy named David. After the meeting, I approached them and said I liked all their small government ideas “except the one about privatizing the waterways,” and we ended up arguing about that one point of difference instead of our many points in harmony. David handed me a book by Ayn Rand called “Capitalism; The Unknown Ideal” and said “Read this. I doubt you will, but you have potential.” That was in May 1979, and I read it in October.

That book changed the entire course of my life. I was converted and became a zealot for rational capitalism. Since then, for nearly 30 years, I’ve been a man on a mission. I remember reading each page of Rand and over and over again her ideas struck me like a bullet in the cerebral cortex. “I’ve been wrong. Holy Jesus--collectivism, socialism, statism... those are all the real enemies. I’ve been wrong!” I kept saying as I read Ms. Rand.

I called those Libertarian guys up and said, “This book is amazing! I want to campaign for you guys.” We met up and they expressed their delight in getting a convert. “Don’t you meet other people who think these are good ideas?” I asked them. There was a pause, “You’re pretty well the first one.” Within a few weeks, I was running for the Libertarian Party leadership. Recently I learned that my good friend Karen Selick (who writes great columns in the National Post when they let her) was in the existing Libertarian Party structure then and thought I was a mouthy, pushy jerk. Converts are rarely subtle. I settled for coming in second and organizing the campaigns of 12 candidates in southern Ontario in the February 1980 federal election. I was hell-bent to smash the state and expose collectivism, and have been hoping to make converts on the way ever since.

Converts bring a zeal that is often overbearing and intolerant, but when you make a convert out of someone who was once your enemy it’s a sweet victory. When you lose one of your own to the “dark side,” it’s a deep personal loss. Such are the power of ideas and the battle for the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens. When you convert, you get new friends and you lose others. When my brother became a born-again Christian, for a couple of years he said “Amen!” at the end of every sentence at the dinner table or in conversation. It was very weird watching a family member change philosophical course radically and with passion, so I sort of realize how I might have seemed to some way back in 1980 and 1981. My brother, in fact, became an Anglican minister in the 1980s and I became a tax-hating, anti-censorship, anti-prohibitionist, anti-state one-man army. Fortunately, my brother still loves me and has offered his church as sanctuary if my battle with the U.S. federal government (they want to extradite me for my cannabis activism) goes badly and I want to seek sanctuary in God’s house. That was a nice gesture from my brother, but I told him, “I’m not going down like that.”

In 1998, the New York Times was doing an article about me and asked Vancouver Mayor Philip Owen about my cannabis legalization campaign and effect on his city. Owen replied simply, “By the end of the year, Emery will be toast.” Over the next 11 months, I was arrested on eight separate occasions for: selling seeds, selling bongs, giving a half gram of hash away to American tourists, passing a joint, and possessing four grams of pot. I was arrested at my office, on the street, driving off the ferry, at my home, at a girlfriend’s home, and even via a phone message asking me to turn myself in (yet again) for new charges and arrest. I was raided three times in those 11 months. I took the hint and got out of radical retail in Vancouver, closing down my Hemp BC store and retreating to the Sunshine Coast, an hour away from Vancouver.

I wasn’t quite toast during my exile, but knew what it meant to get ass-kicked out of town. Police seized $600,000 in assets (that I never got back) and my bail conditions had me banned from Vancouver’s business district, including the 300 block of West Hastings where my store was (and which is known as The Pot Block, or Vansterdam). Upon each arrest, the police would say they had to do it because I was “rubbing it in our faces all the time.” What I was rubbing in their faces was the truth. I used to go to City Hall every year (even while exiled to Sunshine Coast as Vancouver’s City Hall is not downtown) and insist that City Council cut the funding to the police marijuana eradication unit known as “Growbusters” in the years up to 2001. My pleadings were to no avail, of course; Growbusters continues on in its urban anti-marijuana eradication program.

More articles by Marc Emery