Where were you when you realized marijuana prohibition was a vast, pointless and destructive conspiracy against all sense and decency?
I was on a Boy Scout trip. It was 1996 and we were passing through Colorado Springs, where we ended up visiting a park in the center of town to play Hacky Sack. On that day, the park was also hosting a boisterous hemp-legalization rally. Someone handed me a pamphlet explaining that the Hearst and Du Pont families had conspired to ban hemp to boost their own industrial interests. I'd never heard this history before, but it struck me—and stuck with me.
I don't remember other details from that pamphlet, but I know where the ideas in it originated: Jack Herer's The Emperor Wears No Clothes. Chances are, you've heard or repeated the compelling arguments against prohibitionism from this wildly influential self-published polemic.
For decades, the notorious Herer, the "Emperor of Hemp," traveled around the country raising awareness of the injustice of cannabis prohibition. His advocacy won him the honor of having a zippy strain named after him by Amsterdam super-breeder Sensi Seeds—if you've never smoked it, set this down and come back after you have.
Herer passed away a year after the 2009 Hempstalk rally in Portland, where he gave a rousing speech and subsequently suffered a heart attack.
"There's nothing fucking better for the human race than having marijuana morning, noon and night," he said at the rally. "You've gotta be outta your mind not to smoke dope."
Herer had given thousands of such speeches before, starting in the '70s after he opened a head shop in Los Angeles. In addition to authoring Emperor, which some say has sold three-quarters of a million copies, he held pro-pot rallies across the country and launched countless ballot initiatives to legalize pot.
His work was part alternative history and part utopian futurism. He argued that cannabis was a miracle plant that'd been an integral part of human history until a shadowy cabal of industrialists conspired to ban it.
"From more than 1,000 years before the time of Christ until 1883 A.D., cannabis hemp—indeed, marijuana—was our planet's largest agricultural crop and most important industry," he wrote in Emperor. "Cannabis hemp is, overall, the strongest, most durable, longest-lasting natural soft-fiber on the planet. Its leaves and flower tops were, depending on the culture, the first, second or third most-important and most-used medicines for two-thirds of the world's people for at least 3,000 years, until the turn of the 20th century."
Last month Portland lost its last tie to Herer, as his legendary Third Eye Shoppe closed on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard. The landmark, which had been run by Jack's son, Mark, faced stiff competition in the neighborhood and from dispensaries that also sell glass. Mark Herer will now decamp to Southern Oregon, where he plans to become a full-time grower.
With the closure of Third Eye, the Potlander wanted to revisit the life of Herer, one of the most important pot advocates who ever lived. So, we decided to tell his story in his own words, supplemented by the words of three men who were key to his movement: the High Times editor who made him infamous, the Dutch seed breeder who made him immortal, and his son Mark.
Jack Herer was born in 1939 to conservative Polish Jewish immigrant parents in Brooklyn, N.Y. He grew up in Buffalo and dropped out of school to join the Army. He served as a military police officer in Korea, then moved to Los Angeles with his wife and three young children. Before he smoked pot at age 30, Jack Herer was a conservative Republican.
"My mom was growing pot before my dad had tried pot. He found out and he literally said to my mother, 'What will the children think!?'
"We didn't find out who smoked him up for the first time until the day before we put him in the ground. It was this old family friend, Judy Cohen—a nice Jewish lady.
"It took her three times of getting him high for him to get it. Once he actually got high, the third time, he saw—how'd it go?—he 'saw music and color in stereo.' Something crazy like that. It's like, 'OK, I think you got that hit, man!'
"Up until then, he believed we were in Vietnam for a reason. He believed in everything great about our country. Every time we went to war, it was for a just cause. He was a Goldwater Republican. My oldest brother, Barry, is named for Barry Goldwater. [My parents] wrote him a letter and asked if he would be his godfather, and he wrote back on his Senate letterhead and said he would be honored." —Mark Herer, son
"Jack was in the armed forces and came to cannabis late in life. He became obsessed with cannabis after discovering that it enhanced the sexual experience. He did not grow up inside the counterculture like most of us, so many of his attitudes were from a different era. For example, many of us were vegetarians or vegans. Jack ate garbage food." —Steven Hager, former editor of High Times
A man not given to moderation, Herer dove deep into the drug culture once he discovered cannabis. By 1973, he'd published a zine called "Official Guide for Assessing the Quality of Marijuana" and opened the head shop High Country in Van Nuys. He soon started dealing and making paraphernalia—specifically, he marketed a false-bottomed shaving-cream can in which to conceal drugs during travel and a nylon screen called the Johnny Snowflake.
"You ever see the aerosol stash can—the bottom screws off? Dad invented that. He had all kinds of inventions, like this coke grinder called the Johnny Snowflake. They had this jingle that was so popular KROQ played it 17 times in a row.
It went like this: 'When it snows in your town, be sure Johnny Snowflake's around…Johnny Snowflake, Johnny Snowflake, Johnny Snowflake, screens your snow. Johnny Snowflake, Johnny Snowflake, use Johnny Snowflake and your nose will know.'" —Mark Herer
By the late '70s, Herer and his best friend, "Captain" Ed Adair, a fellow head shop owner, were working hard on legalization. Herer would go out to the Venice boardwalk and talk to passersby about the benefits of hemp or his latest legalization-petition drive.
"Captain Ed was 33 years old and I was 34. We took a pledge. At that time, virtually everyone in the California pot movement thought we'd already won. They'd begun to drift away from the movement and had gone back to their lives, thinking the battle was over and we'd won, and that the politicians would clean up the loose ends. Captain Ed didn't trust politicians to get the job done. And he was right.
"Ed's pledge…was that we'd swear to work every day to legalize marijuana and get all pot prisoners out of jail, until we were dead, marijuana was legal, or we could quit when we turned 84—we wouldn't have to quit, but we could.
"When we first made that pledge we were 50 years away from becoming octogenarians. Incredibly, we thought that in light of all the amazing information we had uncovered about hemp, that the battle for complete legalization of cannabis would easily be over in six months—two years at the most." —Jack Herer
"The corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Veterans Avenue is supposedly one of the busiest intersections in the whole country. Dad's like, 'Where are we going to get the most exposure for nothing?' So they set up tents and they had this little mess tent, had rallies and all that. It was the longest occupation of federal property ever." —Mark Herer
As legend has it, after Reagan won the 1980 Republican nomination for president, he happened by and witnessed the scene, then set about stopping it.
"They issue Dad a $5 ticket for registering voters on federal property after dark. The law was supposed to keep communists off the streets or something like that. So he goes to court for a $5 ticket and he says, 'I'm not going to pay your fucking $5,' just to prove a point. 'You're going to have to send me to prison.' So Dad does 14 days of a 15-day sentence over a $5 ticket. And he was thrilled to do it. He's like, 'This is my biggest stand yet!'" —Mark Herer
While in jail for registering people to vote, Herer wrote the outline of the book that would become his breakthrough: The Emperor Wears No Clothes. It was published in 1985 and contained all the tidbits of hemp knowledge Herer had picked up through his studies and conversations, along with a compelling narrative about an industrialist conspiracy to ban pot. The book was born into a world that was hostile to such notions.
"After [Boston Celtics draft pick] Len Bias died in 1986, most of the country turned against illegal drugs. That year may have been a low point in the history of the marijuana movement. It was also the year I arrived at High Times and kicked cocaine out of the magazine. At the time, Jack was still selling his Johnny Snowflake coke grinder. I believe I was an influence on getting Jack off cocaine.
"Doug McVay was an intern at NORML. He brought the original Emperor Wears No Clothes manuscript to the High Times office around the same time I became editor-in-chief. I was fascinated by the hemp information and immediately wanted to contact Jack…. A month or so later, I flew out to L.A. to interview Jack. At the time, he was not taken seriously by very many people; certainly not by NORML, which had refused to publish or get involved with his manuscript.
"I wanted High Times to publish it, and Jack wanted me to help him edit it, but my company refused as well.
"I tried to get High Times interested in hemp, but it would take years before that happened…. [However], I did transform Jack from the old dude ranting about stuff nobody understood to the respected counterculture leader, a true Moses for the marijuana movement. I didn't create Jack, I just made sure people understood who he was and what he was trying to do.
"It was a conspiracy theory, so initially it was denigrated in most corners, and mostly rejected. During my reign at High Times, we exposed a long line of such conspiracies: from Iran-Contra cocaine to the many political assassinations, the sort of thing you never see written about anymore…. [T]he point of Jack's book was that the synthetic petrochemical industry and banks had conspired to outlaw hemp and cannabis to assist the rise of their toxic alternatives." —Hager
"We were aware of Jack's activism very early. We even included parts of his work in the Hash, Marihuana & Hemp Museum in Amsterdam in the very early '90s. The first meeting with Jack took place in 1991, when he came to Amsterdam and visited us.
"Shortly after, he and I went to the naval museum in Amsterdam and had an amazing experience. We discovered that none of the curators there knew of the use of hemp in nautical applications! Only one guy working in the bookshop knew!" —Alan Dronkers, the breeder who developed the strain Jack Herer and the eldest son of Sensi Seeds founder Ben Dronkers
In 1994, Amsterdam's Sensi Seeds released a strain named for Jack. Contrary to urban legend, it wasn't made to his specifications. Rather, it was a strain that Sensi was excited about, with which they wanted to honor Herer. The parentage of the strain has never been disclosed. Sensi says it's "the most award-winning strain ever," and it remains a fixture of Portland cannabis shops.
"We were working on developing a very special strain before actually meeting Jack. The work took us several years, in fact. It was during the Cannabis Castle Tour we organized for the Cannabis Cup in 1994 that we officially dedicated the strain to him in recognition of his [commitment] to the cannabis plant and to the fact his actions led to a true hemp revolution. It was a very cool ceremony. Everyone from the industry was there. [W]hen we saw the mature plants, we knew we were onto something very special. Once we had dried and tasted it—the best testing method of the day—our minds were blown. The rest is cannabis history." —Dronkers
"It's my favorite. Maybe it's a subconscious thing because of my dad, but I love it. When I grow, that's the only thing I keep for myself at the end of the season—Jack." —Mark Herer
Jack Herer passed away in 2010 at age 70. He still had 14 years of work left on his pledge to fight for legalization every day until he was 84, but only five more years to wait until Oregon legalized weed with Measure 91. This wrought huge changes—and brought big problems for the Third Eye Shoppe. The store, housed in a century-old house, looked into becoming a pot shop, but Mark discovered that it was just a few feet inside the required 1,000-foot barrier from a neighborhood church with a daycare center. Now, Mark Herer will move to Kerby, in far southern Oregon, where he plans to become a full-time grower. He'll arrive in another place where legalization has wreaked havoc on the economy.
"With the growers and dealers, I'm sure as much as they respected Dad for what he's done, they were thinking, 'What's the fucking dude's problem? He's going to put us out of business!' The beauty of legalization is every one of them gets to have a real job now and not be afraid anymore. Granted, the price of a pound went from $3,500, wholesale, to less than $1,000 overnight. But none of us are afraid to go to prison anymore." —Mark Herer
"I'm really turned off by the current state of cannabis. Cannabis used to be the cornerstone of the counterculture, an attempt to build a real democracy and increase freedom in America. But we have been heading in the wrong direction since it was legalized in a few states, and now marijuana has become another profit stream for corporate America to exploit." —Hager
On the other hand, it's now very easy to find a prerolled tribute to Herer and his vision.
"Jack Herer® is definitely one of the best sellers in our premium strain category. The Champagne of cannabis strains! You just cannot go wrong with this one." —Dronkers