Who Was Jack Herer?

Remembering a cannabis legend.

Today, if Jack Herer comes up, it’s likely a reference to the popular strain of marijuana, often also called Premium or Platinum Jack, or sometimes JH and The Jack. This marvelous sativa-dominant strain is named for an even more fantastic person — a cannabis activist whose work contributes to the fight for legalization even today, despite his passing.

Life of Jack Herer

Jack Herer was born in New York in 1939, but spent much of his adult life on the West Coast. The 6-foot, 230-pound “Emperor of Hemp” sported a long, shaggy beard that he typically complemented with disheveled hair and tie-dyed clothing decorated with pot leaves atop stars and stripes.

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The youngest of three, Herer was raised in Buffalo, New York. He dropped out of high school and wound up serving as a military police officer in the Army during the Korean War. When he got back to the States, he worked as a sign painter. 

In 1967, he moved to Los Angeles with his three children and his wife at the time. It was there, two years later, that he would discover marijuana.

It changed his life. He, in turn, changed the course of cannabis legalization in America.

Jack Herer and Cannabis

In the early 1970s, Herer devoted his time and interest to weed. After smoking his first joint at 30 years old, he promoted a marijuana grading system that he called the Great Revolutionary American Standard System (GRASS, for short) and invented new forms of paraphernalia. Then, he turned to politics.

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Herer started working to legalize hemp in California. That started in 1973, but he devoted himself to the cause tenaciously for years thereafter. 

photo of Jack Herer, wearing glasses and a purple shirt, holding up a “Freewheelin Franklin” poster

After moving to California and discovering cannabis, Jack Herer dedicated his life to cannabis education and legalization. Photo Credit: Creative Commons

He joined forces with headshop owner Ed Adair, and the two created a political action team they called the Reefer Raiders. That group camped outside the federal building in Westwood, smoking joints and causing trouble. That trouble boiled over through the 80s.

In 1981, he spent two weeks in jail after being convicted of trespassing on federal property. He was there collecting signatures for a California ballot initiative to legalize hemp. 

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In 1983, police raided Herer’s new Van Nuys headshop, High Country. Police confiscated 6,000 items, hit him with a $1,500 fine, and gave him two years’ probation because of a state law making paraphernalia illegal. 

That didn’t stop Herer.

The Emperor Wears No Clothes

In 1985, he published the book that would change his and so many other lives, “The Emperor Wears No Clothes.” 

Herer started writing it while in jail in 1981, and spent years digging through records and research. He even went to the Library of Congress, looking for evidence to support his theory that the government suppressed information about the benefits of marijuana when it chose to outlaw the plant in 1937, just two years before Herer was born.

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The Emperor Wears No Clothes became known as the Bible of the Hemp Movement, and Herer himself became known as the Hemperor. 

Herer’s book tells the history of cannabis production, presenting extensive evidence and documentation to criticize the government’s ban on hemp cultivation. Herer points out how the plant has been used to create paper, fiber, fuel, food, a replacement for plastic, and even serves as a medicine. It even delves into who profits from the criminalization of cannabis and the prohibition placed on the product, and contributes ideas for how to speed up legalization efforts. It is still quoted today in efforts to legalize cannabis and remove it from the United States’ list of scheduled drugs. 

The book’s back cover reads, 

“If all fossil fuels and their derivatives, as well as trees for paper and construction were banned in order to save the planet, reverse the Greenhouse Effect and stop deforestation; then there is only one known annually renewable natural resource that is capable of providing the overall majority of the world’s paper and textiles; meet all of the world’s transportation, industrial and home energy needs, while simultaneously reducing pollution, rebuilding the soil, and cleaning the atmosphere all at the same time… and that substance is — the same one that did it all before — Cannabis Hemp… Marijuana!”

The title is an allusion to the 1837 fairytale The Emperor’s New Clothes, which tells a story about a vain emperor who spends all of his money on new clothing. The story’s moral is to never let pride or fear stop you from speaking up. Herer thought people should feel the same for the prohibition of cannabis. 

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The Emperor Wears No Clothes catapulted Herer to fame. It’s been updated several times through the years and has now sold close to a million copies. Herer spent years on tour giving talks about his book and the benefits of the cannabis plant. In just six weeks in 1990, Herer spoke at 60 different rallies in 48 places. Those appearances became his life blood, invigorating people to fight for legalization. It was that jam-packed schedule that eventually started bringing health issues to the surface. 

Herer’s Death and Legacy

In the year 2000, Herer experienced a simultaneous heart attack and stroke while at a hemp festival. He said that cannabis oil helped with his rehabilitation, but that recovery lasted only a decade. In September of 2009, while giving a speech advocating for cannabis at Hempstalk, a festival in Portland, history repeated itself. He finished his speech, and, minutes later, had a debilitating heart attack. He never recovered.

In April of 2010, Herer died at his home in Eugene, Oregon. 

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“Dad has not filed taxes in over 30 years, so it was wonderful he died on tax day, it really was,” his son Mark joked at the time. 

Herer is survived by his wife (the last of four), six children, a brother, and a sister. 

The strain named for Jack Herer has been cross-bred and modified to produce other popular products like Jack the Ripper, Jack’s Cleaner, and Jack Skellington. The original Jack Herer is known as a fantastic wake-and-bake strain, with a pleasing scent that’s both floral and citrusy, and a relaxing but uplifting effect on both the body and mind. 

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light green cannabis bud of Jack Herer strain

The Jack Herer cannabis strain was created in the 90s to commemorate his life’s work, and remains a very popular strain.

It’s won nine separate Cannabis Cup Titles. 

Jack Herer’s birthday in June 18th. He would have been 83 this year. What a legend. 

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