The Hero of Hemp
Jack Herer’s widow recalls the life of the cannabis movement’s most beloved icons
By Paul Rogers
Jack Herer was never an elected law-maker who could formally shape policy. Nor was he some billionaire who could buy influence. Yet his rare combination of brilliant intellect, endless curiosity, scholarly diligence and passionate people skills made him a force of nature whose impact is perhaps only just beginning to be truly felt.
All but complete Johnny-come-latelies to cannabis culture probably have some awareness of Jack “The Hemperor” Herer as perhaps the most influential figure in the modern legalization movement. Herer, who passed away in April, wrote 1985’s The Emperor Wears No Clothes, the book that ignited the campaign and remains its manifesto and devoted nearly four decades to tireless, charismatic activism. The man almost literally died trying to have hemp and marijuana legalized in America. Were it not for Herer’s work, we might not be enjoying decrim here in California (and elsewhere) or have seen nearly half the state’s voters give the nod to full legalization last month.
Yet while many may have read his book (Emperor has sold in excess of 700,000 copies over the course of 11 editions), heard him talk (he was a fixture at cannabis conventions nationwide) or even shaken his hand (as Herer was the ultimate one-mind-at-a-time, face-to-face campaigner), few knew the complete man or the breadth of his mission. In an exclusive interview, CULTURE spoke to his widow, Jeannie Herer, for insight into the husband who believed he could change the world and whose lingering influence continues to do so.
Jack Herer “had the biggest heart of anybody that I’ve ever met,” Jeannie recalls, radiating fondness. “He loved people and he loved being out and talking to people and educating people. He saw how you can change a person’s thinking very easily if you educate them. And he was an educator. He was an educator who believed that he—that we—could save the world, if we just knew all the facts about hemp.”
As with many figures with his level of star power, Jack Herer’s life was full of intriguing contradictions which only added weight to his message. See, he wasn’t born a hippie or even a liberal, and was only converted to cannabis at age 30. It’s been said that new converts make the most vigorous zealots, and that was certainly true of Herer. He longed for others to experience his epiphany.
Born in New York City in 1939, Herer served as a military policeman during the Korean War. A pro-war Republican prohibitionist (who named his first son after famously conservative U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater, according to Jeannie), he allegedly threatened to leave the first of his four wives upon finding out that she had smoked pot. After moving to Los Angeles in 1967 and divorcing said wife, Herer himself discovered cannabis (“A girl he had a crush on talked him into smoking some,” Jeannie says) and rapidly reinvented himself.
Always furiously curious and an avid reader, Herer immersed himself in the study of all things pot and by 1973 had co-authored the comic ’zine G.R.A.S.S. (Great Revolutionary American Standard System: The Official Guide for Assessing the Quality of Marijuana on the 1 to 10 Scale), was inventing smoking accessories and had opened the modern world’s first hemp store on Venice Beach (and later another in Van Nuys). In 1973, Herer and fellow smoke shop owner Ed Adair launched a campaign to have marijuana legalized. Or die trying. Herer almost did exactly that, eventually succumbing to the effects of a heart attack suffered just minutes after delivering a characteristically impassioned speech at Portland’s Hempstalk festival in September 2009.
Herer, who had not filed taxes in over 30 years, gave up the fight on tax day (April 15, 2010), a coincidence that would have no doubt given him a smile.
“He had a lot of guts”
Though he never saw his vision fully realized, Herer just wouldn’t let his head drop. “Never!” says Jeannie, who married him in 2000. “He was a miracle man … He was a hippie; he loved the Grateful Dead and he dressed like a hippie. But instead of being around the stars . . . he respected people like the veterans who were living under the bridges in L.A.—homeless veterans. These guys were the ones who volunteered to help him go out and get signatures on the sheet to get his initiatives passed. So these are the type of people, the street people, that Jack worked with and was friends with and respected. And that’s who he hung out with.
“He just never stopped talking about [legalization]. And he had a magnetic personality. He wasn’t shy to get out there and spread the word. He set up on the Federal Building lawn [in Los Angeles in 1980] with big giant signs and had people, a hundred people at a time, camping out for a hundred days . . . He had a lot of guts.”
Ironically, it was while serving a two-week federal prison stint in 1983 (for refusing to pay a $5 fine for registering voters in a parking lot) that Herer started writing The Emperor Wears No Clothes, which was eventually published—on hemp paper, naturally—in 1985 (by which point he had opened a smoke shop in Portland, Oregon called The Third Eye, which remains a family-owned fixture in the city). Emperor was the exuberant product of 12 years’ study of the many benefits of cannabis (psychological and medical) and uses for hemp (from paper and textiles to home and industrial energy). So painstakingly thorough was Herer’s research that the book offers $100,000 to anyone who can disprove its claims.
Getting Out the Vote
Jeannie, who read Emperor (a free copy she got when she joined NORML) long before she met Jack, says her husband regarded the book as his single greatest achievement.
“It completely changed my life and I’ve heard so many people say that—so many people have written to us over the years and said that. It’s the most amazing book in the world as far as being able to change people overnight.”
Jack Herer was 6-foot tall and, in later life, a wildly-bearded, 230-pound bear of a man with a weakness for tie-dyed (hemp) clothing and an outspoken love of medicating (“You’ve got to be out of your mind not to smoke dope,” he bellowed during his final speech. “It is the best thing the world has ever had!”) Yet he was no stereotypical counter-culturist, as he believed in changing the system both from without and within. He ran for president twice (1988 and ’92), not because he remotely expected to win (even his second, better effort yielded only 3,875 votes), but rather to raise the profile of his activism and to make a point. “Get out everybody to vote. You have to vote,” he told Medical Marijuana News and Directory in 2009. “If they don’t vote for hemp, vote the fu*@ing bastards out of office right now!”
As well as being a great American original, Herer was a great American patriot. Jeannie recalls that Founding Father Thomas Paine was one of his heroes. “He thought that [America] was the best country in the world, with the best people,” she says. “They just need to be educated . . . people in general and our government, obviously.”
Herer loved to point out that the first and second drafts of the U.S. Constitution were written on hemp paper and that Old Glory was created from cannabis fibers. His penchant for wearing T-shirts depicting a pot leaf superimposed over the Stars and Stripes nicely encapsulates his pro-pot patriotism.
Hemp For Victory
Though he’s synonymous with the pot legalization movement (there’s even a cannabis strain named after him) and loudly advocated smoking marijuana, it was the criminalization of the cannabis sativa plant itself—and therefore hemp—that really had Herer fired up. He saw hemp as the ultimate renewable source of food, fuel, medicine and more—something than can easily be grown almost anywhere and could realistically replace fossil fuels and tree-based paper and construction materials and thus put a stop to related pollution, deforestation and the “greenhouse effect.” This is how he saw hemp saving the world.
Further stoking Herer’s ire was the fact that he regarded hemp’s under-usage as a result not of ignorance but of overt U.S. government efforts that suppressed—and indeed reversed—its proliferation through criminalization (presumably to protect their cronies in oil and other big businesses). As journalist Jeff Myers’s 1999 documentary Emperor of Hemp (which was funded by Body Shop founder Anita Roddick) compellingly shows, Herer even proved that the government had lied when it denied making the pro-hemp Department of Agriculture film Hemp for Victory during World War II. He delighted in screening the 14-minute newsreel, which brought credence to his claims that the powers-that-be were fully aware of the power of hemp—when it suited them.
Debatably, Herer’s writings and rantings have already helped stir something of a bio-revolution. While hemp can’t be legally grown in the U.S., imports of hemp-related products (which are allowed in non-psychoactive form) such as cereals and oils grew in his lifetime. Even major auto manufacturers (overseas) like Mercedes-Benz have included hemp in the composite materials used in their vehicles.
Herer also lent a good deal of his legendary energy to another, perhaps less-reported, interest.
“Jack’s biggest passion was learning/teaching about the role of amanita muscaria mushrooms and other drugs in religion,” says Jeannie. “He read a book while he was in federal prison for two weeks called Sacred Mushroom and the Cross by John Allegro. That sparked a flame in him. He spent six months looking up every single word of the ‘Song of Solomon’ (three pages long) in Strong’s Concordance [of the Bible] so he could find the original meanings of the words.”
“Obviously, if you’ve read his book, you know that we can save the world with hemp,” Jeannie says. “The other thing was the mushrooms and religion. That’s a whole other thing; that we shouldn’t be out there fighting about religion when it all pretty much came from the same mushroom fertility cult—that’s where all the major religions branched out from . . . [Sacred Mushroom and the Cross] really affected Jack; he really believed that.”
Indeed, Herer credited his almost complete recovery from a stroke and heart attack in 2000 to treatment with amanita muscaria.
Yet while Herer was clearly a very serious, scholarly man who spent much of his life lost in learning (“I don’t make a mistake. I do all my homework,” he once told a journalist), that wasn’t the whole man.
“I briefly met Jack in Amsterdam during the Cannabis Cup in 1994. Three years later, I moved to L.A., met him again, and he started calling me ‘Mrs. Herer’ the first week,” recalls Jeannie, who now lives in Palm Springs. “It was nearly Christmas and I couldn’t help falling totally in love with this big, gruff Jewish guy who sang ‘Jingle Bells’ all the time. He was so beautiful.
“Jack was very good at using a yo-yo. He could make it ‘walk the dog’ and a lot of other neat tricks. He loved Ms. Pac-Man so much that he got carpal tunnel from playing it. He loved to watch old Westerns on TV. He loved to sing—one of his favorite songs was ‘Horse Right Here’ from Guys and Dolls.
“Jack would always eat off everyone’s plate. He thought it was funny that one guy he used to work with hated it so much that he would spit all over his food as soon as it came, so Jack wouldn’t do that. Jack loved Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, dim sum, Western bagels, lox and cream cheese. He could speak, read and write Korean.”
Herer could indeed be brusque when his cause required it. But while Jeannie maintains that “Jack was Jack all the time” and that Emperor of Hemp was a very accurate portrayal (which both she and Jack loved), he was far from a full-time brow-beater.
“He was like a teddy bear,” she insists. “No matter how gruff he had to be to get his way, he always had that love underneath it. If he lost his temper one second, the next minute it would be over . . . He was not sweet, but he was always very loving, regardless.”
Raising the Bar
It seems fate is never without a sense of irony; Jack Herer’s prominence in the cannabis world may not have been (or at the very least, may have been quite different) if it weren’t for the law. The Hemperor was arrested in 1981 for trespassing on federal property while collecting signatures for a California ballot initiative, and in the subsequent two weeks he spent in jail, he began work on The Emperor Wears No Clothes.