Have you ever heard the phrases “Hemperor” or “Emperor of Hemp?” If those words left you confused (but wanting to learn more), let us set you straight. Who was the enigmatic figure who helped inspire the global cannabis revolution, not to mention one of the most popular and legendary cannabis strains of all time? It’s time to meet Jack Herer.
Who Was Jack Herer? An Unlikely Origin Story
Born in New York City in 1939, Jack Herer made for a most unlikely cannabis advocate. A self-described “Goldwater Republican”—a follower of the Arizona senator who laid much of the groundwork for the conservative resurgence of the 1960s—Herer was a straight arrow, serving in the Army as a military policeman in Korea. In 1967, Herer, along with his wife and three sons, moved to Los Angeles to work for a company making neon signs. Little did he know that his expertise working with glass tubing would go towards such a—erm—high purpose.
It wasn’t until two years later, at the very tail end of the ‘60s, that Jack Herer finally smoked cannabis. But it was his “lightbulb moment.” As his friend Ellen Komp recalled, after taking in those euphoric bodily sensations we all know and love, Herer’s overriding question was: “Why is this stuff illegal?” He would spend the rest of his life trying to change that.
An avid reader, Jack Herer dove headfirst into the world of cannabis and hemp lore, devouring material from the few books on the topics available at the time. By 1973 he’d opened his first head shop, High Country, selling his handmade pipes and bongs, as well as throwing himself into organizing for California ballot initiatives to legalize cannabis. Around this time he published his first book, “G.R.A.S.S.”—short for “Great Revolutionary American Standard System”—which proposed a 1-to-10 scale for grading cannabis.
Who Was Jack Herer? Wilderness Years and Redemption
In 1983, a new California law tightened restrictions on cannabis paraphernalia. As a result, much of Herer’s shop was repeatedly raided, and he was eventually forced to serve two years’ probation and pay a $1,500 fine. By the 1980s, Herer could often be seen on the Venice boardwalk, haranguing curious passers-by in his inimitably enthusiastic style.
During this time, he was also busy researching hemp and cannabis, often scouring archives at the Library of Congress for long-forgotten texts on the outlawed plants. The book that eventually resulted—“The Emperor Wears No Clothes: Hemp and the Marijuana Conspiracy“—was published in 1985, and it was instantly hailed by those in the cannabis activist universe as a classic. These days, Herer’s far-reaching survey of the many efforts to squash cannabis and hemp production in the U.S. is required reading for serious students of the movement towards legalization. (Hard copies are expensive, but the book is available online.)
Jack Herer spent the final decades of his life as a political activist and highly sought-after (or is that “sought-after and high”?) lecturer. After delivering a typically rousing pro-cannabis speech at the 2009 Hempstock event in Portland, OR, he suffered a heart attack and died several months later at the age of 70.
These days, Jack Herer’s legacy lives on. It’s perhaps most visible in the truly epochal shift in the cultural conversation around cannabis, but the many Jack Herer Cup cultivation competitions held all around the world. And don’t forget you can smoke Jack Herer, too: The legendary strain that bears his name is a sativa-dominant, known for its heady uplift and all-around happy vibes. Next time you try some, be sure to keep the “Emperor of Hemp” in your thoughts; he’s a one-of-a-kind character we can be thankful for every day of the year!