His Highness, Jack Herer
We look beyond the infamous strain to reveal more about the man, activist, and legend that helped pave the way for modern cannabis.
“The Jack.” “Premium Jack.” “Platinum Jack.” There are many names for the strain that bears his name, but only one Jack Herer.
Affectionately known as the “Emperor of Hemp” – “Hemperor,” if you will – Jack Herer spent his life crusading for the legalization of cannabis. His storied existence was full of highs, of course, a fair share of blows to the cause, posthumous triumphs, and plenty of surprises.
“Jack Herer spent his life crusading for the legalization of cannabis.”
For starters, his upbringing did not exactly set him up to be the long-reigning antagonist to the “Reefer Madness” mentality. Born in Buffalo, New York, he came from a conservative Jewish family and served in the Korean War after dropping out of high school. Upon his return, he (basically) loathed the hippie way of life, and, like many Americans at the time, believed cannabis to be just as heinous as heroin.
Shortly after moving to southern California, a girlfriend asked him if he had ever even smoked the stuff! Reluctantly, he obliged, and equated it to the best sex or best meal he’d ever had. A toke that changed his life, and cannabis culture, forever.
In the late 60s and early 70s, he delved deep into dope, studying its every aspect, meeting like-minded folk, and publishing GRASS (Great American Standard System) – a witty, educational guide for ranking the quality of cannabis on a 1-10 scale. He opened Ah Ha Pipe Company in Van Nuys, where, unlike many others at the time because of heavily restricted laws, he didn’t hide the use of the glass products. A veteran himself, Herer spent time with injured and homeless veterans, surveying the ways that cannabis aided in their physical and mental well-being; he’d often recruit them to join him in pro-pot marches and at his tie-dyed cloaked booth on the Venice Beach boardwalk.
“He delved deep into dope, studying its every aspect, meeting like-minded folk, and publishing GRASS - a witty, educational guide for ranking the quality of cannabis on a 1-10 scale.”
As the heyday of the War on Drugs approached, Herer led its fervent opposition. He’d pedal information to skeptics on the boardwalk, lobby with pot-progressive politicians to get legalization on the ballot, and zigzag across the states spreading the word of weed at rallies, festivals, and colleges. Eventually, he was arrested for an arbitrary offense (while protesting the inauguration of Ronald Regan, naturally), and spent two weeks in prison after refusing to pay the $5 fine based on principle.
While locked up, he began compiling his extensive scientific, political, and personal research, finally publishing the “bible” of modern cannabis, The Emperor Wears No Clothes. (Legend has it that the first copy was made on hemp paper.) The title alludes to a Brothers Grimm story where citizens are duped by the emperor’s lies, which Herer saw as a metaphor for cannabis’ faulty reputation. His grand manifesto advocated cannabis legalization and laid out its many benefits to society and healing the planet. It became a bestseller, and as of 2020, it’s in its 14th edition, remaining a continual work-in-progress as American cannabis legislature evolves.
While some of his claims that hemp would literally save the world (from fossil fuel dependency among other things) and his pretty outlandish view on the origins of Christianity (a mushroom-based hallucination?) rubbed some the wrong way, his gregarious charm and enthusiastic passion steered the movement toward their ultimate, collective goal.
Herer rallied until the end of his life. After giving an impassioned speech in Oregon where he proclaimed, “You’ve got to be out of your mind to not smoke dope. It’s the best thing the world has ever had!” he suffered a heart attack. He passed away at the age 70 on Tax Day, which his sons considered fitting as he hadn’t paid his own taxes in over 30 years. Perhaps his final strike to “the man.”
“'You’ve got to be out of your mind to not smoke dope. It’s the best thing the world has ever had!'- Jack Herer, September 2009.”
Herer didn’t live to see any recreational cannabis legalization realized, but medical cannabis regulations trickled in during his lifetime. Since the 1970s, he fought to get propositions on the ballots (even running for President twice!) and witnessed losses year after year. This only fueled his fire, focusing on the incremental upticks in public support instead of defeat.
Thankfully, he did live to smoke the strain that bears his name. Created in the Netherlands in the 90s to honor his work, the Haze hybrid of Northern Lights #5 and Shiva Skunk was sold medically in Dutch pharmacies. While there are many variants today, the sativa-dominant strain is one of the most sought-after options for those seeking an energetic, creative, and blissful high.
Jack Herer leaves behind a legacy of activism and the legend of a brazen man ahead of his time. Places like Marigold may never have existed without him, and for that, he deserves our highest praise.