The man’s name was Jack Herer. At the time, he was in his late fifties and had just published a book that laid out his evidence. Actually, “published” is a strong word. The Emperor Wears No Clothes was cheaply bound by a vanity press, which meant that no reputable publisher would touch it.
Thirty years later, the old Venice Beach conspiracy peddler has become an American legend. His book, now in its 12th printing, has sold more than 700,000 copies, making it one of the most unlikely bestsellers of the past half century.
Herer died in 2010 of a heart attack, suffered after he delivered what would be (unbeknownst to him) his final tub-thumbing speech. But he lived long enough to see his once-fringe ideas move into the mainstream of American thought. Today, with eight states legalizing cannabis for adults and 28 embracing its medical use, his name is spoken daily in millions of commercial transactions: “Jack Herer” is now one of the most popular cannabis strains in America.
That’s not how his story was supposed to end. As a rule, Venice Beach cranks don’t rise to the status of revered visionaries.
So how did “Jack Herer” happen?
It’s a complicated story.
Jeannie met Jack in 1996. “I was never a political person, but I had to be after I read that book,” she said.
Herer’s historiography is still debated today, and his legacy remains unfinished. Herer, who liked to say his last named rhymed with “terror,” will be remembered among those historic legions of misfits, holy fools, and single-minded obsessives whose refusal to give up on their ideas eventually pushed them in front of the establishment gatekeepers, where their arguments could no longer be dismissed.
Keith Stroup, founder of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, recalls Herer as “a larger-than-life cultural phenomenon” and “the single-most important person in the legalization movement.” In the same breath, Stroup will admit that Herer also could be his own worst enemy. Herer’s style did him no favors. His passion slopped into zealotry. He could rub people the wrong way—opponents as well as allies like Stroup.
This was an unlikely outcome indeed for a hirsute electric sign repairman, who a friend described as “like a moving mountain, 6’1″ and 250 pounds, with a big voice, big heart and big appetite,” and who lived out of a shabby apartment reeking of weed in Van Nuys, Calif.
Here’s a clip of Herer speaking just before he went onstage at the the 1994 Gainesville Hempfest in Florida:
Not a natural hippie
Jack Herer was born in New York City in 1939, the second son of a bill collector who moved the family to Buffalo at a young age. Buffalo being Buffalo, young Jack fled town as soon as he was able, enlisting in the US Army at age 17. He served a hitch as a military policeman in South Korea immediately after the Korean War. Herer credited the experience with toughening him up and giving him a respect for America’s democratic tradition. “I believed America was always the good guy; always the most decent right-on people on Earth,” he would later tell an interviewer.
After his discharge, Herer took a job with an electric sign maintenance company in California’s San Fernando Valley. He married Vera Donato. They had three children. Herer’s politics were conservative, reflected in his short-cropped hair and office necktie. He supported Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election and backed America’s military escalation in Vietnam. Herer felt nothing but contempt for hippies and their marijuana. For one thing, they were breaking the law. For another, Herer believed what he had been told in newspapers and the exploitation movies of his youth: Marijuana was a dangerous drug peddled by shifty people with bad agendas. “He thought it was like heroin,” recalled Ellen Komp, a close friend of Herer’s later in life.
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