Marc Emery’s #MeToo Moment: The Dark Side of Cannabis Culture
Cannabis Culture has announced that three of its Vancouver dispensaries will close on January 31, 2019. The closures have been forced by a British Columbia Supreme Court decision affecting 53 dispensaries in the city of Vancouver.
This isn’t the end of Cannabis Culture. The company’s 307 West Hastings flagship location will remain open as a vape lounge and bong shop.
As Cannabis Culture closes its Vancouver dispensaries, it's time for a reckoning with the culture created by founder Marc Emery.
But the Vancouver closings mark the waning influence of a company that once helped define cannabis in Canada. Cannabis Culture and its founder, Marc Emery, have long been seen as a foundational element of Canada’s legalization movement. At one point Emery was arguably the most famous cannabis activist in the world. And yet the loss of the Vancouver outposts are being marked by many this month not with sweet eulogies, but with a collective feeling of relief and good riddance.
That’s not to minimize the pain felt by those connected to the company. More than 50 Cannabis Culture staff members will lose their jobs. Countless medical patients will have less access to the cannabis they need.
What won’t be missed is a company with what some are calling a toxic work environment for women. If there’s a noticeable absence of public grieving over the Cannabis Culture shutdowns, it may be due to a feeling among many in the cannabis world that the company culture fostered by Emery wasn’t always about cannabis. Whispers and allegations about the company’s workplace environment have been an open secret in the cannabis world for years.
Meeting the ‘Prince of Pot’
Although I was never employed by Cannabis Culture, I came into Emery’s orbit 11 years ago.
In 2008, I was a 17-year-old girl who, like many others, looked up to and admired Canada’s self-proclaimed “Prince of Pot.” I saw the cannabis activist as a leader and hero in the marijuana movement. I identified with that movement. I believed in it. I longed to meet him.
His message ended, ‘Kisses to you, my sweet breasted lady friend Your Prince, Marc xxx.’ He was 50. I was 17.
We started talking over Facebook. Within a short amount of time, we were involved in a lengthy conversation about Emery’s sex life. He described his “red flaming balls” to me over Facebook messenger.
Emery has since deactivated his former Facebook account, but I was recently able to find remnants of our conversations. One of his messages read: “I love the new pics. You are so cute, and at times, sublimely lovely. You know I adore you! Thinking of you in Toronto! Kisses & Caresses, Marc.” Emery invited me to visit the Cannabis Culture lounge in Vancouver.
In a Facebook note dated May 1, 2008, I wrote about how excited I was to meet Emery that day at Cannabis Culture. A close friend and I joined Emery for a tour of the multi-level building. I sat on his lap as I smoked marijuana from his giant bong. At the end of our visit, Emery gave me a free pipe (red, after his balls), two perfectly rolled joints, the most recent issue of Cannabis Culture magazine, and a copy of a comic book called Hairy Pothead and the Marijuana Stone.
In another message, he invited me to hang on his arm at an event at the Vancouver Art Gallery on Canada Day. In a conversation with a close friend, I shared a message where Emery signed off with “Kisses to you, my sweet breasted lady friend Your Prince, Marc xxx.”
At the time, I was 17. He was 50.
Emery eventually offered me a job at Cannabis Culture’s Vapor Lounge on West Hastings in Vancouver. I declined—mainly because my mother wouldn’t let me. That’s how young I was.
A Free Tour, an Internship Offer
In retrospect, I look back on that decision with relief. Having heard the stories of many other women, I can now see that Emery’s friendly tour was offered to other young women as well—complete with almost identical parting gifts.
Why I Went Public
A little more than a week ago, I decided to go public with my creepy experience. I posted a series of tweets about Emery and Cannabis Culture.
What prompted me was the Lifetime series Surviving R. Kelly. I found myself unable to make it to the end of the first episode. It brought up too many memories of my own experiences, and the experiences of other women I’ve known. No longer able to hold onto it, I decided to write one Twitter thread about my personal experiences with Emery, and another in which I wove a single narrative from multiple accounts of his behavior told to me by a number of women who came into his orbit.
— deidre olsen #timesup #metoo (@DeidreLOlsen) January 5, 2019
Other Women, Afraid to Talk
The dark side of Emery and Cannabis Culture has been a story waiting for its moment. In late 2017, I grew tired of hearing the rumors. I decided to check them out myself.
'This was meant to be a dream job for us in the cannabis industry, but turned out to be a nightmare.'
Over the following weeks, I spent hours upon hours interviewing women who had witnessed and been subject to Emery’s behavior over the years. I found plenty of concerning material.
Ultimately, I was unable to publish a story because my main source backed out. She was too traumatized to continue, and feared the consequences of coming forward.
She wasn’t the only woman who was reluctant to talk. It was hard to get others to tell their stories when they’d already told other reporters about their experiences, multiple times over the course of several years, with no result. Nobody was willing to publish.
Something is different now.
The #MeToo movement, which went viral after Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s New York Times investigation of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein in Oct. 2017, was just getting started when I made initial contact with my sources. Since then there’s been a seismic culture shift in the way women’s experiences with sexual harassment and assault are treated. Which is to say: seriously.
What’s also different is the legal status of cannabis. Last year it remained legal only for medical patients. Now it’s legal for all adults in Canada. Those with a history of working in the cannabis industry have much less to fear from the law.
With the onset of legalization, Emery’s own power and position in the cannabis world has also diminished. Because of his criminal record, he’s unlikely to wield control over a powerful cannabis company. Fifteen years ago—even 15 months ago—Emery held a position of significant power in the cannabis industry nationwide. That is no longer the case.
The Tweet That Burst a Dam
Since going public with my tweets, a number of women have contacted me or reconnected. Others have spoken out on their own.
The outpouring of #MeToo stories about Cannabis Culture that have come out in the past week has been overwhelming. Just follow the threads from my original tweets to get a sense.
Some have asked to have their identities kept private, partly out of fear of being trolled by Emery’s friends and defenders. Others are now allowing me to quote their stories and use their full real names.
Marc Emery’s Response
Emery himself responded to my tweets, and to inquiries from the Huffington Post, with a public statement of his own last week, made on Facebook.
“Truth is,” he wrote, “I’ve lived a very outspoken, provocative, possibly even outrageous life. I’ve thrived on controversy. And I’ve offended people. Lots of people. I’ve defended Louis CK, had arguments with the trans activists, have been sexually outspoken all my life, am seen around young women because I am popular with men and women, many of them young adults.”
'I do say outrageous things but it is my sincere belief that I have never harmed anyone, or sexually aggressed anyone, in my life.'
“I would like to think my actions…are always clear. I’d like to think I’ve taken care of every employee and every woman I’ve ever known, of every age, in an admirable and honourable way. I do say outrageous things but it is my sincere belief that I have never harmed anyone, or sexually aggressed anyone, in my life.”
In one of his responses, Emery protested that Cannabis Culture isn’t even his operation anymore. It belongs, he wrote, to his ex-wife, the well-known cannabis activist Jodie Emery. Marc Emery wrote that in 2009, one year before he was extradited to prison in the United States for selling cannabis seeds, he ceased being an owner of Cannabis Culture. (He was released from prison and returned to Canada in Aug. 2014.) According to Marc, he and Jodie split last year.
If he’s no longer a part of the business, that may come as a surprise to the store’s customers. His famous name is still used to promote the brand. It can still be seen at the 307 West Hastings location. This photo, taken in 2016, documents a sign above the door that marks it as “Marc Emery’s Cannabis Culture.”
Jodie Emery has not issued a statement regarding the allegations surrounding Marc and Cannabis Culture. She did not respond to my messages asking for comment.
Many Women, a Consistent Narrative
Those who have spoken to me tell consistently troubling stories. A collective portrait emerges of a man who, while pushing the boundaries of cannabis legalization and leading an international movement, used his position to groom young women and create a workplace that left a number of employees feeling powerless to push back against Emery’s inappropriately sexualized verbal and physical interactions.
Melinda Adams, 27, lives in Vancouver. Like me, she also met Emery in 2008 when she was 17 years old. She too was offered a job. She accepted, and ended up working at Cannabis Culture from 2008 to 2009.
One former employee recalled Emery’s pattern: “He’d come and say, ‘Pat the booty’ and pat your bum a couple times, or ‘Come sit on Daddy’s lap.’ ”
“This whole #MeToo movement for Marc Emery is a long time coming,” she told me recently. “A lot of us girls have been mentally abused and now we’re being called liars, disgruntled, trying to manipulate the story into our favour. That hurts us all deeply, because we were the ones who stood by his side during all of his legal battles and his extradition.”
“Marc was always open about his sex life,” Adams said. “He would talk about his first sexual experiences with us and certain things that happened with him and Jodie. All of us would shake our heads and be like ‘TMI’ and walk away.”
But at times it became more than just a case of an oversharing boss. “Sometimes he’d force the conversation on you,” Adams told me, “and you’re just kind of stuck there. He’d always come and say, ‘Pat the booty’ and pat your bum a couple times, or ‘Come sit on Daddy’s lap.’”
Adams believed Emery used Cannabis Culture, the magazine, as a ploy to entice young women. “He’d be like, ‘Oh, you’re a perfect model. You should come be in my next magazine. You can get a job.’ A lot of the girls he liked did get a job there. They would always show up and be like, ‘Oh, I modeled in his magazine.’ He didn’t need new workers. It was just a matter of filtering out the older staff members and filling their jobs with younger, more eager girls—because as we got older, he couldn’t manipulate us or fool with us anymore.”
‘Suck on This’
Heather Bryant, 41, also agreed to speak out and use her real name.
She worked a short contract as a cleaner at Cannabis Culture, volunteered for Cannabis Culture magazine, and spent ample time hanging out at the business from 2005 to 2009. She told me she witnessed Emery harass women, including his employees, in a variety of ways. Bryant said many of them appeared to be underage, and he would often comment on their breasts and encourage them to discuss sex with him. Bryant recalls Emery inviting them to take hits from a giant bong he placed between his legs, telling them to “Suck on this.”
“I wanted to be involved because it felt like I was making a difference,” Bryant told me. “Cannabis Culture felt like it should have been a safe space to go, network and meet people of like mind,” she said. “When Marc wasn’t around, it was a safe space to do all of that.”
Bryant was initially flattered by Emery’s attention. His contact with her often strayed outside the bounds of normal owner-employee interaction, though. “He was very sexual in his messages, which made me feel special,” Bryant said. “I didn’t realize he was doing it to everyone else.”
“When Marc was around, it was always about sex, whether he was talking about sex he had, his friends had, or you had. He was telling people they needed more sex. He was commenting on women’s breasts. He was grooming us [to look] like he wanted us to look.”
No More ‘Anything Goes’
“Marc has greatly assisted the cause of legalization and normalization of cannabis,” Bryant said. “On the other hand, he has a dark and horrific legacy of mistreatment of his young and trusting employees.”
“What’s coming to a close,” Bryant said, “is their era of anything-goes.”
And anything-goes, she explained, “really meant anything—the drugs, the parties, the underage women, the inappropriate touching and the grooming.”
Sexist Diatribes and Bud Babes
Lisa Campbell, a former podcaster for Pot TV, Cannabis Culture’s online channel, recalled the leading role that Cannabis Culture played in Canadian culture over the past 20 years—and the sexist environment that she said the organization also helped foment.
When Campbell was young, she told me, Cannabis Culture was one of the only media outlets available for cannabis activists to express themselves, discuss cannabis, and document the legalization movement.
It wasn’t all growing tips and nug shots, though. The magazine’s covers and online forums, Campbell remembers, were “lined with sexist diatribes and bud babes, which promoted toxic masculinity and sexualized women in order to market legalization.”
Sex, Drugs, and Male Dominance
One theme runs through a number of the stories women have told me: using a variety of drugs—far beyond cannabis—as a way to coerce otherwise reluctant women into having sex.
Brittany Southgate, 28, of Vancouver, said she met Emery when she was 19 years old. Southgate, along with a few friends and her then-boyfriend, listened as Emery held forth on the subject of drugs. She recalls him giving advice to the men: If you are with a girl and you want to have sex with her, the best thing to do is to give her crystal meth because it will make her incredibly horny.
While Emery refutes this claim—when asked for comment, he replied, “I’ve never advocated for crystal meth, that is ridiculous,”—there appeared to be little embarrassment about this strategy. To Emery and those running the show, sexism seemed to be a feature, not a bug. In Cannabis Culture’s online forum, a comment by Emery on a 2005 thread called “how to have anal” went into great detail about ways to coerce women into the sex act. The key, he wrote, is to get the woman to a point where “her body is defeated.”
Emery wasn’t exactly hiding all this from his girlfriend. In a response on the same forum on the same day, Jodie Emery (then Jodie Giesz-Ramsay; the two married in 2006) followed Marc’s “ass bandit” post with “Amen! That’s how you do it, boys.”
The forum post above remained live and accessible until late last week. The link now redirects to Cannabis Culture’s home page. The entire Cannabis Culture forum appears to be no longer active.
Leanna Wilson, 26, also agreed to speak out about her past experience. She visited Cannabis Culture several times as a teenager. She would smoke cannabis in the vapor lounge. One day when she visited, Wilson recalled, Emery happened to be there. He asked her to join him for a dab.
“I really wish I had declined,” Wilson now says, because the dab was followed by a long and uncomfortable conversation with Emery about his sexual exploits. “He told me about his sexual experiences with young women in Amsterdam and the sex toys he used with them. It made me very uncomfortable and I don’t even think he considered to notice,” said Wilson. “After that experience, my opinion on him changed and I stayed away from Cannabis Culture.”
“It’s sad, because cannabis is a very healing medicine and it’s still getting a bad reputation to this day,” Wilson added. “I put a bit of the blame on Cannabis Culture for not stepping up and making sure it’s a safe place for all.”
‘We All Needed a Job’
Ashley Schoffenburg, 36, lives in Burnaby. She worked at Cannabis Culture between 2006 and 2008. She was in her twenties. While working her shifts, she recalled, it wasn’t uncommon for Emery to sneak behind the counter and give her and other women back and shoulder rubs and tell them the details of his “dirty sexual escapades.”
“He was horribly unprofessional, basically telling us that we were doing a terrible job and that he could hire younger, hotter girls,” Schoffenburg told me. “We felt helpless. We all needed a job. This was meant to be a dream job for us in the cannabis industry, but turned out to be a nightmare.”
Once Emery “realized he didn’t have a chance” of connecting sexually with Schoffenburg, she said, “he laid off a bit.”
‘People Were Star-Struck’
At parties, Schoffenburg recalled Emery offering a variety of drugs to friends and staff members.
“I never consumed the drugs because I didn’t trust him, and had seen what happened there,” Schoffenburg said. “Right when I started working there, there was one party where he came up to me, offered me who knows what kind of drugs, and started telling me how he intended to sleep with every female he knew before going to jail.” Emery’s wife Jodie, Schoffenburg said, “was right next to me” as Emery rubbed Schoffenburg’s shoulders. “I laughed and said, ‘Not me.’”
“People were literally rolling around on couches half naked because they were so high on God knows what drugs that he gave them. He would walk around with ziplock baggies handing that shit out like candy. Or the time where he handed out ketamine and told people it was MDMA. Typical Marc. […] People were so star-struck that they didn’t say no. All in all, it was a terrifying place to work.”
“Between the sexual touching, the sexual conversations,” and the overall illegality of the business, said Schoffenburg, “we were all too afraid to speak up.”
Giving Advice to Male Employees
Women weren’t the only ones made uncomfortable and, at times, disturbed by Emery’s behavior.
Donald Williamson is 41 years old. He lives in Sault Saint-Marie. He worked at Cannabis Culture over a nine-month period from May 2005 to March 2006. His jobs varied—growing, security, transportation. Today, he recalls the experience with regret.
Williamson said Emery would advise him and others about how to pair drugs with sex acts. Cocaine was good for anal sex with women, Williamson recalled Emery telling him. His boss’s favourite sex drug, Williamson heard, was amyl nitrite. Williamson said he witnessed Emery invite “young ladies to sit on his lap, and several times saw him place squares of LSD on their tongues.”
Williamson recalled what he described as Emery’s grooming techniques. “He would pinpoint a certain young lady, usually with family issues and low self-esteem, hire them at Cannabis Culture or get them to hand out anti-propaganda and leaflets. He would always tell them they can trust him and look to him for support,” he said.
But that trust and support, Williamson said, often seemed to be mixed with heavily sexualized language and flirting that crossed the line into harassment. Less than a year into the job, an incident involving Emery’s treatment of a young woman caused Williamson to leave Cannabis Culture and seek employment elsewhere.
“I truly believe the Emerys set back the true culture of the cannabis lifestyle as well as put huge obstacles in front of us and caused drama that didn’t need to be there,” said Williamson. “Although these girls suffered, so did I, my life I worked building for years. My reputation. This is the story that destroyed my life. It gives me PTSD episodes bringing it all back up.”
For Years, Nothing Changed
The problems at Cannabis Culture seem to have persisted up through the present day.
In the summer of 2016, Mandalena Lewis and a friend visited the 307 West Hastings Cannabis Culture location, where she met Emery. Lewis told me she knew nothing about Emery, was new to the cannabis industry, and wanted to expose herself to the community.
“I thought Cannabis Culture was going to be a compassionate place where I would fit in and find my niche group of feminist activist women who also agree with cannabis being legalized,” said Lewis. She was shocked to find the opposite.
“Within a couple of minutes,” Lewis recalled, “Marc Emery makes a comment about how much he likes my skin and then decides to touch my face. We addressed it pretty quickly and then we left because tensions got very high. He was looking at me the whole time like I was ice cream. I could feel it a mile away.”
Volunteer Who Wanted to Help
For years, the toxic workplace culture survived and thrived at Cannabis Culture. Emery had the power to hire and fire. Many of the women who worked for him were young; some came from troubled circumstances and desperately needed the job.
Others, though, were just hoping to lend a hand and volunteer their help in the righteous cause of legalization.
In 2010, Andrea Smith was a 23-year-old photographer living in Calgary. Like many other young Canadians, Smith looked up to Emery as a man of conviction and courage. She felt it was unjust that he should suffer in a US prison for selling mail-order cannabis seeds.
At the time, Emery was in Canadian custody in Vancouver. He faced charges in the United States for what was then, and remains, a federal crime. He was extradited to the US and pleaded guilty to one count of marijuana distribution in May, 2010.
Smith took it upon herself to raise funds for his legal fees. At the time, she marketed her work under the name Andi von Doom. She started a photography project, hoping to shoot pin-up models smoking cannabis, then host an art show on the theme of “Free Marc Emery.” She also planned to sell a calendar at Cannabis Culture and other cannabis-related stores. Smith reached out to Marc and Jodie Emery, offering her services free of charge to photograph women, including those who worked at Cannabis Culture.
Smith told me she was in contact with Marc Emery via Facebook messenger during this period, but found the conversations more and more difficult to endure. Smith said Emery would go on at length about his sex life, including a running tally of how many times he’d had sex with his wife. “I’m like, why are you telling me this?” Smith recalled. “It was disgusting. I come from a background of sexual abuse so I kind of thought it was my fault. I idolized him. That’s exactly what he uses as his weapon.”
‘A Touchy Guy’
In his nearly 1800-word statement released last Thursday, Emery rambled on about his 60 years on Earth as an outspoken man who discussed sex openly. He admitted he’s a “touchy guy” but insisted that he’s never had sex with anyone younger than the age of consent. (In 2008, the age of consent was raised from 14 to 16 across Canada.)
Emery says his ex, Jodie Emery, should not be held accountable for his actions and that she actually banished him from Cannabis Culture for making staff members uncomfortable. It’s unclear when this banishment happened, or if it continues to this day. For her part, Jodie Emery has not yet released a statement directly addressing the allegations brought forward in the past week.
In follow-up posts, Emery last week stated, “I have never had anyone complain to any authority ever about my behaviour. In 40 years as an employer not a single complaint to a labour board, police, or any kind of authority. Never had a parent come to see me about the treatment of their son or daughter.”
“None of these women,” he also wrote, “complained at the time or asked for an apology. What is happening is that, reflecting back on their experience 10-14 years ago, they feel differently. But this is a scarce minority viewpoint. I have employed over 400 men and women since 1975, and perhaps 10-20 regret the experience out of 400. Most of these people who worked for me went on to great success and happy careers. Some of those expressing regret were dismissed from their job and are/were bitter about it.”
It’s unclear what role, exactly, Emery continues to play in the Cannabis Culture organization. Last week he posted this update on Facebook:
Time for a Reckoning
While Canada’s legalization movement has been led by strong women—Rielle Capler, Trina Fraser, Jenna Valleriani, Tracy Curley, Lisa Campbell, Amy Anonymous, Reena Rampersad, Michelle Rainey, Hilary Black, Abi Roach, Kelly Coulter, and yes, Jodie Emery, to name a few—only Marc Emery declared himself the “Prince of Pot.” Only Marc Emery positioned himself as the nation’s long-suffering cannabis martyr.
Emery broke boundaries, fought unjust laws, and paid a price for it. Some of his employees paid a price, too.
To his credit, he founded and built a small retail and publishing empire that pushed forward the righteous cause of cannabis legalization. His talent for publicity turned him into one of the most famous cannabis activists in the world. He spent five years in prison from 2010 to 2014 for selling cannabis seeds to people in the United States. He is responsible for creating what is now the BC Marijuana Party Bookstore and the New Amsterdam Cafe in downtown Vancouver. He broke boundaries, fought unjust laws, and paid a heavy price for it. Federal prison is no joke.
But as we witness the winding down of Cannabis Culture, it’s also time to own up to a full reckoning. Criminalizing cannabis didn’t merely harm those who wished to enjoy a mild relaxing substance or use it as a legitimate medicine. The illegal nature of the business allowed other nefarious acts and toxic cultures to flourish. If you’re already breaking the law, it’s hard to run to the police or government authorities for help.
One former female employee who responded on Facebook (I won’t name her, as I haven’t received her permission to use it in this piece) wrote that many of the women who look back in bitterness at Emery’s treatment “were much younger and without financial resources and so could not speak out or leave the job. Forced to go along to get along. It was a different time then, too, 13-15 years ago you couldn’t really speak out about this type of thing at all.”
Goodbye to Toxic Cannabis Culture
In the post-prohibition era, we’re bidding adieu to toxic cannabis culture and the popular figureheads of old. Some are worthy of respect and popular adulation. Some are not.
Lisa Campbell, the podcaster for Cannabis Culture’s Pot TV, went on found the Toronto chapter of Women Grow and the Ontario Cannabis Consumer and Retail Alliance. She told me that while Emery made great strides as an activist, for her, his achievements will forever be overshadowed by the way he treated women and the toxic environment he fostered.
“In 2019,” she said, “I’m happy to say goodbye to Cannabis Culture and create a new movement where women are honoured and respected as leaders.”