Cannabis Kingpins: Masters of Marijuana – Part 1: Jack Herer


After thousands of years as a form of alternative medicine, marijuana was effectively prohibited globally by the middle of the 20th century. In the United States, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 mostly made the herb illegal. However, a significant number of states had already placed the substance on their banned lists. Soon enough, America used its global power to persuade other nations to mimic its draconian attitude towards cannabis.

Despite the ban, millions of people around the world used marijuana for various reasons. These individuals needed ‘champions’ who could turn the fortunes of pot around. Over the last half-century or so, many cannabis advocates stepped to the front lines to fight the good fight. In this series of articles, MarijuanaBreak looks at the men and women who dedicated their lives to this particular struggle.

Medicinal marijuana is now legal in a majority of American states, and the reach of recreational weed is also growing. Our northern neighbors, Canada, fully legalized cannabis in October 2018. Other nations will likely follow suit sooner rather than later. As more people gain access to weed, it is only right that we take time out to remember and honor those who made everything possible.

In the first article of the series, we take an in-depth look at the life and times of the great Jack Herer.

The Emperor of Hemp

Also known as ‘The Hemperor,’ Jack Herer spent decades trying to educate the public on the medicinal qualities of cannabis. For his efforts, he is remembered through the Jack Herer marijuana strain, and also the Jack Herer Cup, which is held in Las Vegas annually.

Born in Buffalo, New York, on June 13, 1939, Herer was not a marijuana advocate from a young age. This fact is hardly a surprise given the era he grew up in. Remember, anti-cannabis hysteria was at its height thanks to the efforts of Harry Anslinger et al. 1930s propaganda such as Reefer Madness had convinced a significant percentage of Americans that weed was evil, and liable to drive people to murder, suicide, robbery, and insanity.

Given his later career, it might shock you to learn that Herer was once a Goldwater Republican. In case you don’t remember, Barry Goldwater ran for President in the 1964 Election; Lyndon B. Johnson defeated him in a landslide. Interestingly, both Herer and Goldwater allowed their views to evolve over the years. For instance, Goldwater became more libertarian and eventually lobbied for homosexuals to serve in the military, an unthinkable position for him a couple of decades earlier.

As for Herer, he was anti-cannabis as a young man! He allegedly threatened to leave his first wife once he discovered her weed habit. His opinions seemed to change when he switched coasts and moved to Los Angeles in 1967. It was an era and a location where marijuana and free love reigned. At some stage, a new girlfriend persuaded Herer to try some herb, and the rest, as they say, is history!

Jack Discovers that the GRASS Is Greener

jack grass discovery kingpins

By all accounts, Herer was almost 30 years of age when he tried marijuana for the very first time. Once he felt its effects, he immediately performed a 180-degree turn on his opinion and became one of the world’s most prominent advocates of cannabis. He spent the rest of his life promoting the herb, especially hemp and tried to explain how this humble plant could change and arguably save the world.

From that point on, he was a fully-fledged marijuana supporter. He opened two head shops in Venice Beach, California, in the early 1970s. Herer then published the Great Revolutionary American Standard System (G.R.A.S.S) with Al Emmanuel in 1973. G.R.A.S.S was an official guide on how to assess the quality of marijuana on a scale of 1 to 10. It was a massive hit in the ‘hippy’ community, and Herer was inundated with letters from those who wanted to share more information about the plant.

It was at this point in his life that Herer met Edwin M. Adair, a man known as ‘Captain Ed.’ Adair served as a mentor to Herer, and it is safe to say that he completely altered the course of the Hemperor’s life. While Herer knew quite a lot about the herb, Captain Ed helped bring enlightenment to what he had learned, according to his friend, Ed Rosenthal. Now, Herer realized that marijuana and hemp were in the same boat. If one remained outlawed, so was the other. It took over 40 years for this not to be the case!

The Pact

Herer and Captain Ed made a pact in 1974. They agreed to work every single day to legalize cannabis and ensure all those in jail for pot-related crimes saw daylight. Their mission would end only when marijuana was legal, or when they died! Interestingly, the pact had the proviso that either man could quit once they reached the ripe old age of 84. As it happened, neither man came close to living that long. Sadly, Captain Ed died from leukemia in 1994; he was just 50 years of age.

True to his word, Herer continued to tour America in a bid to tell everyone who would listen about the need to legalize weed. He spread his reach to Portland, Oregon, where he opened a shop called The Third Eye. Herer also founded Help End Marijuana Prohibition (HEMP). Soon after completing G.R.A.S.S, he started to research what would become his masterpiece: The Emperor Wears No Clothes.

In the meantime, he used his boundless energy and enthusiasm to capture the attention of people everywhere he went. Remember, on virtually every occasion where he spoke to a room, the occupants loathed marijuana. In a significant number of instances, he managed to give them at least pause for thought, if not outright change their minds.

Herer was happy to fight his corner and even clashed with the Hemp Industries Association. He believed the group was guilty of separating hemp from marijuana. One of his greatest passions was to ensure that those imprisoned for cannabis-related crimes received their freedom.

Leading up to History

Those who knew Herer often spoke of his fire and passion. Chris Conrad helped edit the first edition of The Emperor Wears No Clothes. According to him, the very first time they met, the two were fighting within minutes. As Conrad put it: “If you never got mad at Jack, and Jack never got mad at you, then you probably didn’t know Jack very well.”

Herer never sought fame. His goal was to show America and the world, if possible, that the policies on hemp and marijuana at that time were harmful to the Earth. As the great man once said: “It [hemp] is the safest, smartest, best medicine on the planet… You’d have to be stupid not to use it.”

As was the case with any cannabis activist in that era, Herer ran into trouble with the law as a matter of course. It was during a two-week stint in a federal prison in 1980 that he started writing the tome he became famous for.

The Emperor Wears No Clothes

First released in 1985, The Emperor Wears No Clothes is one of the most seminal pro-marijuana works in existence. In many ways, it helped spark the modern cannabis-legalization movement. Even today, those in the industry use it as their manifesto. In the book, Herer drew on over a decade of research to showcase the numerous benefits of the plant.

Herer looked at the history of prohibition and pointed the finger at the likes of DuPont and William Randolph Hearst; two major players in the anti-weed propaganda of the 1930s. The book looked at the history of hemp and explained that the crop was:

  • The earliest known cultivated plant for clothing and medicine.
  • Used to create 90% of all ship sails from 500 BC to the late 1800s.
  • Used as the primary base material for around 80% of all fabrics and textiles for items such as bed sheets, towels, and diapers in the U.S. until the 1880s.
  • Responsible for making anywhere from 70% to 90% of all paper, twine, rope, and cordage up to the late 1800s.
  • A crop cultivated by the likes of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

The book also states that a cannabis user would need to consume around 1,500 pounds of weed within 15 minutes to die. It was a claim upheld in 1988 by Judge Francis Young, a DEA Administrative Law Judge. However, even though the world knew that a fatal cannabis overdose was all but impossible, the herb remained on the list of controlled substances.

Herer’s Claims Are Challenged

The premise of The Emperor Wears No Clothes was that hemp could save the planet if we allowed it. Herer was so confident in his research that he offered $100,000 to anyone who proved him wrong. No one tried to collect, although a few experts on hemp later suggested that Herer made unrealistic claims.

For example, Herer stated that hemp hurds contains 77% cellulose. According to Dr. Hayo M.G. van der Werf, the hurds contain no more than 38%. In this case, it is possible that Herer confused the hurds of the plant with the bark.

Another major Herer claim was that hemp produces higher yields than many other crops. Once again, Van der Werf said the writer was wrong, and that the likes of potato, maize, and sugar beet outperform hemp under the most favorable conditions.

He may have a point. For example, the maximum yield potential of sugar beet is 50 tons per hectare, compared to hemp’s apparent limit of 2.4 tons. The record yield for maize is 23.5 tons per hectare. Potatoes can yield up to 70 tons per hectare. Even so, the legalization of industrial hemp growth in 2018 will open up a vast profit-making opportunity for farmers, while ensuring we finally get to see the potential of hemp.

The Later Years

In Herer’s mind, he was just getting started! One of his most receptive audiences were those who attended Grateful Dead concerts. At these gigs, he set up a mobile information booth and told tales about hemp to anyone who would listen. One of his biggest stunts occurred in 1987. He played Hemp for Victory, a 14-minute WWII movie about hemp, on a continuous loop for 24 hours a day near the Washington Monument. Herer ensured that the film had a musical backdrop of upbeat songs!

In 1988, Herer ran for President of the United States as a candidate for the Grassroots Party. Unfortunately, he received fewer than 2,000 votes. At around this time, he was a regular at the ‘Nut House,’ a collective led by Steve DeAngelo that acted as the main center of pro-marijuana resistance on the East Coast. ‘Stevie D’ funded the Nut House and also donated $50,000 to underwrite a 14-city ‘hemp tour’ featuring Jack Herer.

However, there were plenty of hemp advocates who did not wish to associate with the Hemperor. They felt that his rhetoric was over the top, and were quite happy to fight for the legalization of hemp while weed stayed on the prohibited list. They tried to persuade government officials to separate the two substances.

Yet it was Herer’s exuberance that arguably helped fuel the big push of the 1990s. After another Presidential bid in 1992, where he got almost 4,000 votes, Herer continued to make strides in his fight. Along with his dedicated followers, he traveled thousands of miles each year to make appearances, sign copies of his book, and attend hemp festivals.

The End & The Beginning

True to his word, Jack Herer fought for the herb every day until he drew his last breath. It was therefore fitting that he helped Dennis Peron in the passing of Proposition 215 in California in 1996. This piece of legislation ensured that the Golden State was the first to legalize medicinal marijuana in the United States. It was undoubtedly a proud day for Herer, and he believed that full legalization was close at hand.

A heart attack in 2000 slowed him down severely as he had a loss of mobility and speaking difficulties. In May 2004, he claimed that a psychoactive mushroom called Amanita muscaria helped him recover and come back stronger than ever. Herer received the reward for his efforts in 2003 thanks to his induction into the Counterculture Hall of Fame at the 16th Cannabis Cup.

He spoke at HempStalk in 2009 and wanted to talk about the success of Rick Simpson’s hemp oil. Although Herer wanted legalization, he didn’t want taxation of the herb. Sadly, he didn’t live long enough to see Colorado and Washington legalize recreational marijuana. Jack Herer died in Eugene, Oregon, on April 15, 2010. His death was due to complications from a second heart attack, suffered in September 2009. For a man who never paid tax, it was ironic that he died on America’s Tax Day!

Herer’s life is a prime example of what one person can do when they have passion, dedication, and belief in a cause. His tireless efforts are a primary reason why we have better marijuana laws in the United States, and all cannabis users should honor him.