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Jack Herer, Hemp Emperor Extraordinaire

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The history of hemp reaches back thousands of years. So, it’s nearly impossible to ascribe its progression to the work of any one individual. It’s possible, however, to connect hemp’s legalization to specific historical developments. However, in doing that, we must also tell you the story of Jack Herer, the Hemp Emperor.

During his lifetime, Herer’s admirers christened him the Hemperor. His book, The Emperor Wears No Clothes, which he began writing in prison, sold more than 700,000 copies. In all, the book went through 11 editions. Unfortunately, Herer didn’t live to see the full extent of his legacy. That said, his story is a fascinating one, which we share below.

Just the Basics: A Jack Herer Overview

Looking for the Cliff Notes version on Jack Herer, the Hemp Emperor? We certainly have you covered. Check it out here:

  • Born in 1939 in New York City to a conservative family
  • Dropped out of high school to join the U.S. Army
  • Served as an Army police officer in Korea
  • Initially opposed the legalization of marijuana and the counter-culture of the 1960s
  • Changed his mindset after trying marijuana for the first time in 1970
  • Co-authored a pro-hemp comic coloring book in 1973
  • Dedicated his life to hemp legalization, including voter registration efforts and two runs for U.S. President
  • Wrote a best-selling novel that’s still considered the “bible” of hemp legalization
  • Passed away in 2010, leaving behind an unparalleled legacy in the hemp industry

The Early Life: A Conservative, Pro-War Attitude

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As is the case with many other historical figures, the story of Jack Herer is one of self-transformation. In fact, his older self would have been shocked by the decided turn his life eventually took.

Born in New York City in 1939, Herer dropped out of high school to join the Army as a military policeman. He was the youngest of three children, born to a family that insisted on traditional values. Herer served in the Korean War and returned with his pro-war values intact.

Certainly, Herer’s upbringing shaped his conservative beliefs. As a Goldwater Republican, he supported the active escalation of the Cold War and rejected the hippie culture that embraced marijuana and advocated for peace. It’s difficult to believe that this man would eventually turn into the biggest advocate for hemp in the 20th century.

Herer moved to Los Angeles with his first wife in 1967, but the marriage wasn’t meant to last. In fact, he divorced his first wife because of her fascination with the hippie culture. And yet, he would soon come to share similar beliefs.

The Turning Point for the Hemp Emperor

In 1969, Herer tried marijuana for the first time at the urging of a girl he dated. His life would be forever changed. Or, as he put it in a video interview:

I’m 30 years old and this is the first time that I ever knew music had music in it!”

This experience proved to be the turning point for Herer. From that moment on, he became infatuated with cannabis, reading everything he could get his hands on about the subject. He became particularly fascinated by the psychoactive effects of marijuana. His studies from this point forward turned him into an activist who played a prominent role in enabling the eventual legalization of hemp.

In 1973, Herer co-wrote a comic zine called the Great Revolutionary American Standard System (G.R.A.S.S.): The Official Guide for Assessing the Quality of Marijuana. A coloring book for adults, it was sold in underground bookstores and at fairs around Southern California. Herer’s work earned him recognition in the California hemp scene.

As time progressed, Herer continued to publicize his comic zine and amass additional knowledge about the hemp plant. In the course of his promotional travels, he also met Ed Adair, who (like Herer) owned a hemp store in the Los Angeles area. The two would go on to open the world’s first hemp store in Venice Beach. Both men continued to be partners until Adair passed away in 1991 from leukemia.

In that same year (1973), the pair made their now-famous pact. They agreed to work together until they succeeded in legalizing hemp, the government released all pot prisoners, or when they turned 84. That year, Herer began to use all his newfound expertise to form the basis of his activist work.

The Activist Years: Fighting for Hemp's Legality

Herer’s activist years began in an unusual spot: under bridges, building relationships with homeless veterans and learning about how they used cannabis to secure their physical wellbeing. He began collecting signatures from these veterans to kick off what he and Adair had promised they’d achieve together: the legalization of the entire hemp industry.

Herer’s goal was singular: to bring to the forefront the injustice of rejecting a plant that could be the solution to the world’s greatest problems. A firm believer in the democratic process, Herer used the American political infrastructure to further his aims. Ballot initiatives, voter registration drives, and local petitions were his focus in these early years. He even organized pro-hemp protests in Washington D.C.

These efforts, in isolation, may seem inconsequential, given that 40 more years would pass before the 2019 Farm Act became law. However, it’s impossible to look back at them now and not recognize them as pivotal to the legalization of hemp.

The Breakthrough: Writing The Emperor Wears No Clothes

We’ll start this section with a clarification: Herer’s unlikely bestseller doesn’t just focus on a single period of his life. Instead, the entire book shines a light on several parts of his life. Herer’s mission began the moment he became convinced of hemp’s benefits. His hunger for knowledge took him to the U.S. Library of Congress, where he looked for evidence that the government suppressed information about hemp to outlaw its use.

Still, there is a distinct starting point for its writings: As part of his voter registration efforts, Herer ran afoul of federal law by registering voters on federal property. When he refused to pay the $1,500 fine, he was sentenced to two years’ probation and two weeks in federal prison. During those two weeks, what he wrote on looseleaf paper eventually became the most significant book available on hemp legalization.

In it, Herer argues that hemp should have never have been illegal, to begin with. He pointed out the many potential uses of the plant, including the fact that drafts of the U.S. Constitution were written on hemp paper or the fact that, if leveraged the right way, biomass from corn stalks, cannabis, and waste paper could replace 90 percent of all fossil fuels.

Research on the versatility of the plant has since backed up many of his claims, which seemed outrageous at the time.

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The Emperor Wears No Clothes

The title of his book, The Emperor Wears No Clothes, is a play on Hans Christian Andersen’s fable The Emperor’s New Clothes. In the book, servants trick their king into thinking that he’s beautifully clothed when in fact, he’s naked. As Forbes.com notes on the modern twist:

“In this version, Jack Herer effectively blows the king’s cover, revealing that cannabis prohibition is an injustice to the American people, brought about by nefarious policymaking. Sinister political motives in the 1930s demonized the plant in all its forms (marijuana and hemp) to preserve the interests of powerful politicians, oil tycoons, publishers, and status-quo conservatives.”

The Hemp Emperor and His Claim

In his book, Herer makes a profound claim that Hemp can solve the world’s problems. It just needed to be legalized. He also promised $100,000 to anyone who could disprove the claims the book made. Famously, no one has managed to cash in on the reward.

The book, published on hemp paper (of course) in 1985, was the breakthrough Herer had been waiting for. Now a famous staple on the Venice Boardwalk, he continued with a passion to try to persuade skeptics about the holistic benefits of hemp. By 1990, with sales of the book (which he continually updated) earning him six figures in income, he became a regular in the hemp legalization circuit. At one point, Herer addressed 48 rallies in a single six-week span.

At the height of his fame, Herer ran for president twice, in 1988 and 1992 respectively. He only received a few thousand votes but counted it as a success. Herer chose to focus on the fact that his candidacy raised the profile of hemp and his efforts to bring about its legalization.

The Hemp Emperor and His Activist Work

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It’s difficult to imagine all of these developments happening without the groundwork laid by Jack Herer. His tireless work for hemp legalization, including authoring a best-selling book as well as participating in voter registration drives, petitions, and political protests, undoubtedly paved the way for rising awareness about hemp. In fact, Herer’s efforts increased the political pressure that eventually led to hemp legalization.

What close friends remember most about Herer, however, is his larger-than-life personality. Always happy and gregarious, the Hemp Emperor loved being around people. He enjoyed talking to skeptics and proved to be a fierce proponent for hemp. In fact, in his later years, his passion for legalizing industrial and commoditized hemp far outpaced his personal desire to legalize marijuana.

The $100,000 prize for disproving his book is still available. Thus far, no one has stepped up to claim it, given the increasing evidence backing up hemp’s intrinsic benefits.

The Hemp Emperor in Later Years

Herer’s fame and activism continued even after he suffered a stroke and heart attack in July 2000. Ever resilient, he recovered his speech and went on to give more speeches. In fact, he even registered people to vote and fight for hemp legalization. Herer credited his recovery to the powerful psychedelic mushroom Amanita Muscaria. He believed this mushroom to be the key to understanding the mind of deities, as delineated in the biblical Book of Solomon. Throughout his later years, Herer championed the ritual use of Amanita Muscaria.

Herer worked until he suffered another heart attack while backstage at the Hempstock Festival in Portland, Oregon, in December 2009.

Four months later, at his home and with his wife Jeannie at his side, Herer came to the end of the road. He passed away from health complications on April 15, 2010. However, his legacy and impact on hemp legalization continued.

In 2012, Oregon (where he made his home) passed legislation to legalize hemp. Two years later, the first legal hemp went on sale to consumers. And of course, the United States officially legalized hemp across the country for commodity use with the 2019 Farm Bill.

Hemp is Legal, Thanks in Part to the Hemp Emperor

Few readers can read such an illustrious (not to mention turbulent) biography without coming away impressed. It’s certainly a gripping story of one of America’s most colorful public figures. But, it raises an important question. What does Jack Herer’s legacy have to do with us and the hemp industry in general?

Of course, Herer and companies like ours have something in common: both parties believe strongly in the plant’s benefits. And, we advocate on behalf of these benefits where we can. However, the connection goes deeper.

Jack Herer's Legacy Continues Through Synchronicity

In many ways, it’s thanks to his activism that Synchronicity™ has inherited the practice of going beyond the commercialization of hemp. Our efforts to continue educating the public about the many benefits of hemp go far beyond the products we sell. Every day, we share the same mission as Jack: to prove to the world that hemp can be beneficial in more ways than one.

Organizations like ours are forever grateful for Herer’s work on hemp education and legalization. He may have left us a decade ago, but his legacy continues. What he did for the hemp plant, his fight for its acceptance and eventual legalization in modern America, will remain core to the industry today and into the future. The Hemperor moniker certainly appears to be well-earned.

That said, if the Hemp Emperor’s story has piqued your interest in the green herb, let’s have a conversation about it. And, if you’d like to explore the full line of Synchronicity products, contact us. We may not write best-selling books, but we can answer your most pressing questions about hemp.


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