Sure, the kidney transplant helped. But if it weren’t for pot, the 27-year-old from Roseburg wouldn’t have had the will to make it to the hospital. Afflicted by a rare gene deficiency, which caused him to be born blind in his left eye and with an underdeveloped spine, Hamm—not to be confused with the Mad Men actor of the same name, though with his prolific beard, glasses and burly frame, that’s an unlikely mistake—already had one kidney fail as a teenager.
Five years after the surgery, on the eve of his wedding, the replacement organ started to go. He and his wife, Nikki, skipped their honeymoon to move to Portland and begin his treatment. Just recalling the pain he was in walking to and from the dialysis clinic makes Hamm well up with tears. At some point in the 2½-year process, he had enough. He was going to self-medicate, and damn if anyone was going to demonize him for it.
“I told myself, ‘I’m not going to let anybody make me feel bad for feeling good in my time of need,’” recalls Hamm from his home in Northeast Portland, dabbing his eyes with his shirt. One day before a dialysis session, he overpaid for a bag of low-grade shake, opened every window in his apartment and, using a makeshift pipe he fashioned from metal straws, got high for the first time. “And I felt great,” he says.
Since then, Hamm has branded himself something of a mascot for Portland’s pot culture. He straddles the line between serious advocate and, well, what you’d expect of a guy who now goes by the name Ganja Jon. His voice rises with anger when discussing the ongoing prohibition of what he sees as vital medicine, but he’s not above giggling about the time his buddy came over and got so blitzed he threw up in every pair of shoes in the house.
For three years, Hamm hosted The Ganja Jon Show, a podcast on the NORML Radio Network, where he advocated, with equal parts humor and vehemence, for the rights of medical-marijuana patients. His logo—what looks like a bearded Lego Man wearing a patch emblazoned with a pot leaf over the nonfunctioning eye he had removed at age 25—adorns T-shirts. A lifelong comedy fan, Hamm is a fixture backstage at Helium Comedy Club in Southeast Portland, and a legend among touring comics. Google his pseudonym, and the first result is a clip from an episode of Conan, in which comedian Brian Posehn recalls when Hamm got him especially stoned and then, without warning, yanked out his glass eye. (Hamm says the story is “90 percent true.”)
But Hamm is more than just a symbolic figure: His recipe for hash oil, a form of highly concentrated cannabis, has won awards at the High Times Medical Cannabis Cup in Seattle and the Kush Expo in Los Angeles.
Marijuana didn’t just save Hamm’s life. After that first toke, it became his life.
“It completely devastated my brain,” he says. “Even now, it’s all I really think about.”
Coming from a conservative family, Hamm tiptoed into his new life as a stoner renaissance man. Initially, he thought smoking pot was something he had to hide, even from Nikki, a nontoker. The secret didn’t last long. “I didn’t think it was that big of a deal,” she says. “Anything for him to be out of that pain.”
Today, marijuana is just another aspect of the couple’s domestic bliss. Hamm spends most days at home—where he lives with his younger brother, his brother’s fiancee, a pug named Milo and a Boston terrier named Brutus—making hash oil for dispensaries and fellow patients. His workstation is a wooden tabletop in his living room, which he keeps crowded with clear-glass smoking apparatuses referred to as “oil rigs.”
Hamm started learning how to make the oil shortly after being prescribed a medical-marijuana card, when he was told inhaling smoke from actual buds put his weakened immune system at risk of infection from mold. At the time, “no one really knew what they were doing,” Hamm says. He describes the hash oil in circulation just three years ago as “black goop” often tainted by residual traces of the butane used to extract the oil, which would sometimes cause users’ lungs to spasm. Speaking to professionals at pro-marijuana gatherings, Hamm adopted a vacuum system to clear out the leftover solvents, leaving a hardened amber liquid the color of maple syrup. Done right, it’s “really, really effective medicine,” Hamm says. Used recreationally, it can be too potent for a newbie to handle: He once inadvertently sabotaged a comic’s set at Seattle’s Bumbershoot festival by giving him a hit of oil. “He was slapping the floor, speaking gibberish,” Hamm says. “He lost his mind.”
Regardless, the myth of Ganja Jon has spread beyond the Pacific Northwest—to the point that comics have pitched cartoon shows based on him to national networks. He didn’t plan on becoming a cult figure, but then, that’s the power of marijuana.
“It’s surreal,” Hamm says, “just having good pot, and knowing what you’re talking about, gets people to talk about you on Conan, I guess.”