Jack Herer, RIP


I first read Jack Herer's book The Emperor Wears No Clothes back in 1993, while researching a Reason cover story about the marijuana reform movement. It was the 1990 edition, designed and edited by Chris Conrad, who called the original, 1985 version "a diamond in the rough." It was still pretty rough: an outsized paperback with newsprint pages and a cover featuring what looked like a green clip-art collage that included images of cannabis plants, a printing press, a tractor, a coiled rope, a fuel pump, a deer flanked by a butterfly and a bird, and Earth as seen from space. Perhaps because the title itself was so vague, the cover included a kicker—"HEMP & THE MARIJUANA CONSPIRACY"—as well as a subtitle: "The Authoritative Historical Record of the Cannabis Plant, Hemp Prohibition, and How Marijuana Can Still Save the World." Writing that "the problems with the hemp-as-wonder-plant strategy are pretty obvious," I quoted Kevin Zeese, then vice president of the Drug Policy Foundation:

That wing [of the movement] presents the marijuana user as a stereotype that frightens society–the long-haired hippie. It scares people….It comes across as, "This is the wonder drug that can save the world, the environment, the trees, the fuel supply; it can heal the blind and crippled." It really sounds like a snake-oil salesman, even though there's a lot of truth to it.

I also argued that Herer and his followers, no matter how sincere, risked being perceived as disingenuous:

After all, hemp's main use in the United States today is not for paper or cloth or fuel. Any mildly skeptical person, upon hearing a guy with a long beard in a tie-dyed shirt talk about the wonderful versatility of the hemp plant, is going to have a pretty good idea what's really on his mind. The appearance of deceit only makes getting high seem all the more sinister: If there's nothing wrong with it, what are they trying to hide?

I still think there is some validity to those concerns, but they should not detract from Herer's impressive accomplishments in arousing curiosity, generating enthusiasm, and making prohibitionists look bad. His book, published in the middle of the Just Say No era, demonstrated how our view of hemp has been warped by the government's campaign against marijuana. For someone unfamiliar with this story, the most startling parts of The Emperor Wears No Clothes are not at all dubious. Regardless of whether William Randolph Hearst banged the drum against marijuana because he wanted to eliminate competition in the paper business, or whether pharmaceutical and petrochemical interests supported prohibition for similar reasons, the story of how this plant was banned is astonishing: the ignorance, the racism, the blitheness with which legislators voted to criminalize something they knew nothing about. Fully half of The Emperor Wears No Clothes, which according to Herer's website has sold more than 600,000 copies, consists of reproduced material, including  transcripts of the Senate hearings on the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, anti-marijuana articles from that period, the script from the federal government's Hemp for Victory propaganda film, and scientific articles about hemp's uses, along with contemporary criticism of the war on drugs.

Contrary to my misgivings, the hemp movement and industry that Herer inspired helped bring marijuana reform into the mainstream by offering legal products (hemp bags, hemp clothes, hemp cosmetics, hemp food) that carried an implicit message about cannabis yet could be purchased and consumed with plausible deniability: I'm not a pothead; I just really like hemp seed granola. At the same time, the over-the-top reaction to this cultural threat from drug warriors showed that Herer was on to something. The Drug Enforcement Administration repeatedly tried to ban hemp foods, even though they are not psychoactive and are plainly permitted by federal law (as a federal appeals court pointed out). It insisted that the government could not simultaneously enforce marijuana prohibition and allow cultivation of industrial hemp, even though many other countries manage to do so. These positions can only be understood as a reaction against the symbolic significance of the hemp industry, which drug warriors see as a rebuke to their pharmacological fanaticism. We can thank Herer, who was born two years after Congress enacted marijuana prohibition and died yesterday at the age of 70, for helping to create an environment in which grown men tremble at the sight of hand cream and snack bars.