The Hemperor strikes back
Not so long ago, in a nearby
galaxy called California, a young
warrior faced a dark Empire.
The warrior joined a small band of
rebels, and became learned in
the ways of Hemp.
Imprisoned at the command of
the Emperor, the warrior wrote
a powerful tome exposing the Empire
as a fraud, and revealing the mysteries
of Hemp to the universe.
Now, the Empire is crumbling, yet
still desperate to destroy the
rebel Hemp Alliance...
The Emperor of Hemp, 60-year-old Jack Herer, was exhausted. He hadn't slept in two days. His hand hurt from signing dozens of copies of the eleventh edition of The Emperor Wears No Clothes. Herer doesn't just sign his name in these books. He listens patiently, intently, to people who wait for hours to stand in front of him, telling him what marijuana and his book have meant in their lives.
"I named my son Jack after you," a young man tells Herer. "Your book was how I found out all the plant could be used for, and how the government got together with industry to kill it. It changed me into an activist."
Herer smiles ? this is music to his ears. Not the adoration, which he graciously accepts but later says he finds somewhat disconcerting, but the testimonies to the power of a book that almost every hemp and marijuana activist will tell you was a profound catalyst for their activism.
The young man continues to pour his heart out to Herer. Tells of being arrested, fined, branded a criminal, his child temporarily placed in a foster home. An all too familiar story.
Herer writes: "For you and your children, for my six children, and for all living things, take this book and use it to ensure a better future for all of us, filled with freedom and fun."
We have former President Ronald Reagan, a cannabis-hating zealot whose wife spearheaded the disastrous "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign, to thank for Herer's book.
As is so eloquently explained in Jeff Meyers' new film about Herer, Emperor of Hemp, Jack was a conservative, middle-class guy, opposed to marijuana and in favor of the Vietnam War, until the late 1960's, when he was introduced to a foxy lady named Mary Jane.
"It made me feel good, better than a martini, and it also made me see things differently," Herer says of his introduction to getting high. "I found out why pot-smokers wore colorful clothes and listened to psychedelic music. And I realized that if the government is putting people in jail for this, then the government can't be trusted."
Almost everyone mistrusts their government, but the major theme of Herer's life since his marijuana awakening has been to change the government, peacefully if necessary. This led to his fateful encounter with Ronnie Reagan.
"We were out on the lawn in front of the federal building in Los Angeles," Herer recalls, "protesting and gathering signatures for a legalization referendum. Reagan had just been elected president the first time, but hadn't been inaugurated. He saw us, and asked the building manager, 'What are all those Canadians protesting out there?' He thought our pot leaf banner was a maple leaf. The guy told him we were marijuana activists. Reagan wanted something done, but the guy told him free speech and assembly were still legal. Reagan said, 'I'll be on duty as president in a few days. We'll see what we can do about that.' And he did something, he got us arrested for trespassing, for civil disobedience."
Most of Herer's co-defendants pled guilty to trespassing on federal property (a misdemeanor), and paid a $15 fine. Herer refused to acquiesce, and fought the charges for two years.
"Government property," Herer says, spitting with derision. "What the hell is that? No such thing. We paid for it. We're the government. It's our property, our right to assemble and speak. I refused to accept the very premise on which they based the arrest."
Herer fought and lost, and had to walk through the gates of a federal prison in 1983 to serve a two-week sentence.
"I'd already written a book about cannabis, with my friend Captain Ed Adair, in 1973. We called it Grass. I'd been collecting all kinds of cannabis information since then, and it was banging around in my head when I sat in that cell by myself. I didn't want to watch TV or sit there and cry. I took my anger, and what I knew about this plant, and wrote the first draft of Emperor, in that cell. I knew it was revolutionary," Herer said. "I knew that this would give people the motivation and ammunition they needed to defeat the stupid drug war once and for all."
So, thanks in part to President Reagan, Herer's first version of Emperor hit the bookstores in the summer of 1985. The book was thinner, less organized, more graphic, experimental and vituperative than the latest edition (number eleven), which is 120 pages longer than the original and even includes a section containing advertising for hemp clothing, pro-marijuana bumper stickers, music, books and services.
"What accounts for the popularity of this book?" Herer asks rhetorically after I noted that nearly a million copies had been sold. "Part of it is that everybody has been lied to, and this book had the guts to prove it. The government suppressed this information, and their allies tried to remove hemp from the historical record. And people who like pot were tired of being treated like second-class citizens, of seeing their rights trampled, and this book gave them the information, and maybe the inspiration, to stand up and fight back."
A Jewish businessman
Fighting back is the operative theme in Herer's life. Many pot-smokers are content to sit back with a supply of herb, hiding from The Man, passively accepting the harsh realities of prohibition. But not Herer, who's gentle, warm and fuzzy when in the company of friends, but a bear of a man, a formidable, relentless foe, when he's battling injustice.
Herer's feistiness came in handy during a 1981 incident in Lancaster, California. Herer and eleven activist friends were gathering petition signatures for marijuana legalization at the Antelope Valley Fair. Police arrived, and ordered Herer's group to leave. He refused.
"They were arresting us," Herer remembers, "and being very polite about it. 'Watch your head as you get in the back of the police car.' That kind of stuff. They take us to the jail, still very nice, escorting us through booking and then behind some partitions into this narrow hallway. And as soon as they get us out of public view, they changed completely and became menacing and abusive. 'You want to legalize dope? You want to be a wise guy?' They started beating us with rubber truncheons. What an ugly scene. They hit my friend Ritchie in the kidneys so hard that he couldn't pee for two days. We spent the night in jail and got bailed out the next morning.
I told the cops, 'I'm a Jewish businessman. We've learned how to deal with Nazis like you. You'll be hearing from our lawyers. You'll be sorry you met us.' They replied, 'We've been doing this for twenty years, and nobody's ever been able to do anything about it. The newspapers won't even cover it. Fuck you.' So I said. 'We'll see about that.' And we got press coverage of it, which forced the sheriff to do a public apology, admitting that our arrest was illegal. It came back and bit them in the ass."
Similar grit was necessary in proving that a pro-hemp film made by the US Department of Agriculture in 1942 government, Hemp For Victory, actually existed.
"All the government officials ? from the Library of Congress to the USDA ? denied that the film had been made. They tried to say that we made it! We had to go there, and search forever to find the listing, give them copies, and prove it was legitimate. They finally accepted the truth and admitted the film into their archives," Herer says.
"We tried something along that line at the Smithsonian Institution museum, which was displaying paper, textiles and rope from America's history and specifying that it was cotton, wool and other fibers, when it was mostly hemp. They made a lot of excuses, and refused to listen to us. It's part of the censorship of history in this drug war."
Working the system
By selling hundreds of thousands of books, and making thousands of speeches, Herer continues his battle for marijuana legalization. His most fervent efforts remain in the trenches of political activism, gathering signatures for legalization initiatives, registering people to vote, managing or assisting successful campaigns for medical marijuana and marijuana decriminalization in California, Oregon, and across America.
"The system may be broken, but it still works," he says to a book purchaser who stated that voting is futile. "Medical marijuana is legal in five states because people voted. Oregon's attempt to recriminalize marijuana failed because people voted. If every one of you who smokes pot, believes in freedom, and wants to change things would get involved in the political process ? run for office if you have to, vote against anybody who supports the drug war ? we could take this country back from the fascists. Quit complaining and do something positive for a change." Herer stands up and shakes the kid's hand, then moves away from the book table.
"I gotta go get some sleep," he says. "Ed [Adair] and I made a pledge to each other, that we would work to get everybody out of jail and totally legalize cannabis, until we were dead, or reached age 84. I feel like I'm 84 already. Ed died in '91, and I miss him terribly, but I've got 24 years left on my pledge. Do you think pot will still be illegal in 2024?"
Pot will be totally legal long before 2024, if Herer has his way. Buoyed by electoral success in 1998, when Herer and savvy Oregon activists convinced voters to decriminalize cannabis and set up a system facilitating medical marijuana use, Herer is now pushing the "California Cannabis Hemp and Health Initiative 2000." The initiative would legalize all uses of the cannabis plant, and states that "the people of California hereby repudiate and challenge Federal cannabis hemp/marijuana prohibitions that conflict with this act."
"We've got it right there in the measure, in case anybody wants to deliberately misinterpret it like they did with 215, that this law seeks to protect the environment and peoples' spiritual, personal and economic freedoms. We free the prisoners, defund law enforcement, and allow people over 21 to use cannabis privately for any reason they see fit," Herer says, picking up a copy of the proposed law and reading from it.
"All provisions of this act shall be liberally construed for the accomplishment of these purposes: to respect human rights, to
promote tolerance and to end cannabis hemp prohibition."
Smoking the Bomb
Before I could ask his predictions about the initiative's likelihood of success, Herer pulled out a small, handsome, carved wood pipe and a bag of sticky nuggets.
"You get to smoke Jack Herer with Jack Herer," he quipped, filling the pipe. "Take a hit and tell me if that isn't the smoothest you've ever tasted."
The hit was very smooth, and very powerful, but Herer corrected me when I attributed the taste solely to the namesake herb itself.
"Look at the pipe. It's the pipe," he cooed, fondling the pipe and pulling similar ones out of his pocket. "These are the finest wood and craftsmanship. We have a new design ? see those two holes in the endpiece ? that make it a beautiful draw, a great taste, and no wasted weed. This burns so clean, and delivers a big hit. People get higher off these than off regular pipes." I was surprised to learn that Herer sells pipes.
"I was one of the biggest wood pipe manufacturers in the US during the 1970's," he explained. "I also made the best camouflaged stash cans, the kind that looked just like aerosol spray cans. The ones we made actually sprayed. The police never figured them out."
After taking another hit off the pipe, Herer told me about actor Woody Harrelson and activist Todd McCormick crowding into Herer's Southern California apartment for the "Herer Cup."
"We had a fun evening. I hate to admit it, but there is one kind of herb that is stronger than Jack Herer," he said. "It's called Cherry Bomb, because it tastes like cherries. There's several variations, and they're all delicious. Even a Cherry Bomb Grapefruit. It's the only pot I haven't developed a tolerance to. I do love the Herer, and I also love Northern Lights #5 x Haze and Skunk#1 x Haze. Isn't this a great plant?"
Conflict and resistance
After thirty years in the marijuana industry, Herer has become a legend and a target.
His voice tinged with betrayal and indignation, Herer describes the actions of a rival cannabis activist, who publicly accused him in July of not being the author of The Emperor Wears No Clothes.
"Who knows why people do these things? It's one of the reasons that pot's still illegal, people in the movement stabbing each other in the back, fighting with each other.
It's sickening," he says. "This guy claims other people wrote my book for me. I have always acknowledged, right from the very start, the valuable role that outside sources, editors and assistants played in this ongoing project. We're constantly updating the material, and we freely quote from a variety of sources. It's my book, but I don't really care what he thinks. It's the plant's book. It's about the plant. I don't worry about my ego or his."
And if threats from within the movement were not enough, Herer still has to contend with prohibition, just like the rest of us.
"I got busted at the LA courthouse last August," he explained. "I had one of these wood pipes filled with herb, and I guess the little metal fastener set off their metal detector. They searched me and found the pipe. They said I was smuggling drugs into the courthouse. 'It's an automatic two-year sentence to bring drugs into a courthouse, jail or prison.' They bring me to the police station, and this lieutenant has no idea who I am. He keeps telling me I can't bring marijuana into the courthouse, and I keep telling him it's my medicine and it's legal. He calls the district attorney, who calls my doctor. My doctor tells them, 'I highly recommend that he use medical marijuana.' The DA tells the lieutenant he has to let me go.
The cops were very mad, and the lieutenant calls another DA, a friend of his, hoping to get permission to arrest me. But it didn't work. He takes off the handcuffs, and escorts me toward the steps of the police station, where four or five of my friends are waiting. He waits until the last minute, and then hands me my pipe, with the medicine still in it, and through very clenched teeth he says 'Have a nice day."'
One of Herer's assistants interrupts the interview to tell him that a throng of people are waiting at his festival booth, anxious to meet him and have him inscribe copies of his book.
As we walk toward the booth, we see two dozen people gathered around, like pilgrims at a holy site, clutching copies of Herer's book.
"I love these people. It's for them, and for the plant," he says as he sits down and uncaps a pen. "But it's also a lot more basic than that. I'm a Jewish businessman. We found out in Germany what happens when you don't vote, when you don't fight back. This war on hemp is another holocaust. I'm not going to rest until it's over."
? Jack Herer: tel (818) 988-6210; www.jackherer.com