Heretic, Zealot, Truth-Teller

NORML’s executive director recalls his long, stormy friendship with Jack Herer

By James Lang

Speaking by phone from his office in Washington, D.C., NORML Executive Director Allen St. Pierre describes the view from his window and what it says about the legacy of Jack Herer.

“I’m looking out on K Street and watching people going about their business,” he says. “Here in D.C., Jack’s name means nothing. But if we went into any dispensary in Boulder, Colo., and talked to people there, they’d tell you all about him.”

A day earlier, Herer—writer, activist, two-time presidential candidate—had finally succumbed to the heart attack he’d suffered in September. His passing was so keenly felt in the cannabis community that NORML posted a bulletin on its website noting the time of his death to the minute:  “Friends and family confirm that Herer, known throughout the world as ‘The Hemperor,’ passed away on Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 11:07 a.m. Pacific Time in Eugene, Oregon,” the bulletin read. “He was 70 years old.”

St. Pierre knew Herer well both professionally and personally. He was, in fact, with Herer at last year’s Hempstalk Festival in Portland, Ore., when the aging activist had the heart attack that ultimately killed him. St. Pierre recalls the two had argued passionately that day.

“He had told me he stopped taking his [diabetes] medicine because he had gotten so enamored with that guy Rick Simpson,” St. Pierre says, referring to the Canadian activist who claims a hemp oil formula called Phoenix Tears cures cancer. “I said, ‘You’re a fucking idiot. Don’t stop taking your medicine because of hash oil—there’s no connection between diabetes and hash oil.’”

“That’s what I recalled when I came in last night and saw all these text messages about his death,” he continues, pausing to clear his throat. “At our last private moment together, he said to me, ‘You guys are fucking Rick Simpson just like you fucked me—by ignoring him!’ I said, “Because the science isn’t there! We cannot tell people that cannabis oil cures cancer!’”

The exchange was emblematic of the complex, at times even openly hostile relationship between the bomb-throwing activist and the more sanguine leaders of NORML. During the course of our 30-minute conversation, St. Pierre alternated between praising Herer’s remarkable success in raising public awareness of hemp prohibition, and lamenting Herer’s willingness to sacrifice facts on the altar of his cause. Throughout the conversation, it was clear that the Hemperor’s death had saddened St. Pierre profoundly—he was in no mood to mince words.

“My first thought when I heard of Jack’s passing wasn’t surprise, given the state Jack’s body was in,” St. Pierre says, noting that Herer had had several increasingly debilitating heart attacks and at least one stroke since 2000. “It was of the finality of it, that we’d never talk again. My second thought was of that film about Jack, The Emperor of Hemp, in which one of his friends, a very interesting L.A. cat sitting in a church pew, delivers the quintessential explanation of Jack.”

“The description is not that much different than how one would describe Martin Luther, or Martin Luther King or even Gandhi,” he says. “It’s of someone completely zealous, way over-the-top zealous. You wouldn’t want to be a part of this person’s family, because they give so much of themselves to this thing they’re martyring themselves for that they lose themselves to it.”

St. Pierre recalled Herer’s early days as a hemp shop vendor, when his colorful Venice boardwalk booth would stop passersby in their tracks.

“You couldn’t miss it, with its psychedelic colors and decorative marijuana leaves—whether you were attracted to it or repelled by it, you couldn’t miss it,” he says. “On any day, you could walk down Venice Beach, and if the weather was good, amid the musclemen and skaters and strollers, there was Jack Herer’s hemp booth with all his hemp products.”

There also would be Herer, trumpeting his message that hemp was a cheap, environmentally sustainable resource for everything—food, fabric, livestock feed, even fuel. Sounding off at a time when the environmentalism movement was increasingly focused on the issues of sustainable crops and renewable fuels, Herer’s arguments made sense. They also helped open eyes to the tortured logic behind America’s cannabis laws.

“Jack’s cause was hemp—how it was largely non-psychoactive, its uniqueness, the commonsense uses of it in all its myriad forms,” St. Pierre says. “That wasn’t a camel’s nose under the tent of cannabis legalization, it wasn’t a ruse, but those arguments for legalizing hemp would be the final blow, the commonsensical blow against the almost entirely indefensible prohibition against cannabis.”

In 1985, Herer published The Emperor Wears No Clothes—essentially a scrapbook of information on hemp and cannabis glued together by passionate essays on prohibition. Whether due to the strength of the book or the cult of personality that developed around its author, the work energized a generation of activists and gained Herer the reputation as the father of the modern cannabis legalization movement.

Now in its 11th printing, The Emperor Wears No Clothes also sowed the seeds of discord between Herer and NORML, the nation’s largest pro-cannabis organization.

“From the very beginning of the book is a flawed theory that cannabis prohibition was the result of a conspiracy between people like [William Randolph] Hearst and [Federal Bureau of Narcotics director] Henry Anslinger and the Du Ponts and Andrew Mellon—that simply isn’t true,” St. Pierre says. “Cannabis prohibition came out of good old American ignorance, racism and ethnocentrism, and by the time Anslinger came along, he was playing off well-established stereotypes.”

But true or false, Herer’s ideas found fertile ground in the minds of his readers. The notion of prohibition being the work of a vast conspiracy between the government, the news media and the petrochemical industry quickly became cemented in the 420 culture, untroubled by history and undismayed by facts. It was a development that St. Pierre says bedeviled him.

“I’ve done maybe 12,000 radio appearances—half the time, listeners will call in and spend half their time waxing on about and extolling the virtues of a conspiracy theory that simply isn’t true,” he says. “For the longest time, I’d just let that go unchallenged. But around 2001, I started to inform anyone who would listen that, while there were thousands of good reasons to legalize, one was not that there was some grand conspiracy between Anslinger, Hearst and the Du Ponts.”

St. Pierre wasn’t alone in his disdain for Herer’s conspiracy arguments. He described the relationship between the increasingly popular activist and former NORML executive director Don Fiedler as one of outright antipathy.

“In ‘88 to ‘90, when Fiedler was here, he found himself so vexed by Jack and his followers that he called them the ‘Hererites,’ or ‘Hempsters,’ because they were so focused on hemp,” St. Pierre recalls. “Don would listen to Jack and say, “Great, all good reasons for legalization, but those aren’t the arguments we can make in a federal court or when sitting down with Congress people. Jack would be like, “Well, fuck you—you must be inside the Beltway, part of the problem.’”

The animosity arguably reached a head when Fiedler made an attempt—which St. Pierre described as “underhanded and ill-advised”—to publicly discredit Herer’s book.

“What Fiedler did was understandable, but in bad form,” St. Pierre says. “At a national conference where Jack was to receive a lifetime achievement award, Fiedler invited an agronomist—known as a big supporter of hemp—who came up and took maybe 30 of the more outrageous claims in the book and, in a scholarly way, pretty much took them apart. This wasn’t done as you would with a scholarly publication, where Jack was able to see the material against him in advance. This caused a lot of tension between NORML and Jack, but it never caught fire and never sullied Jack’s reputation—he just yelled, louder, that ‘hemp would save the world.’”

The Emperor Wears No Clothes was essentially a living document; over the course of its 11 printings, it would be significantly revised and edited by different hands and with Herer’s strong guidance. But it wasn’t until writer and activist Chris Conrad’s involvement with the book that it would change from what St. Pierre called “a cut-and-paste polemical” to the more professional document it is today. That helped in easing tensions between the author and his critics, including NORML.

“Chris gave the book a strong editorial push, with research and footnotes,” St. Pierre says. “Then he went on to found his own organization [the Business Alliance for Commerce in Hemp] and write his own book, because he wasn’t convinced Jack would follow the science. He couldn’t just keep citing Jack’s book.”

In his later years, Herer grew increasingly focused on the benefits of hemp oil—and, says St. Pierre, increasingly enamored with the claims of Rick Simpson that the oil was a cure for cancer. Simpson cites Herer several times on his websites as a key supporter of his beliefs. This, again, brought Herer—who had announced he was working on a book on hemp oil and was reportedly consuming large quantities of it daily—in conflict with NORML.

“We are all touched by cancer, all of us, and science is at the fulcrum of cancer treatment for me,” St. Pierre says. “Jack was just about to go on this world tour about hemp oil. The last time we fought [at the 2009 Hempstalk Festival], it was so bitter that people around us said, ‘We’d better leave these two alone.’ I told Jack that I couldn’t get out on stage and tell these people that hemp oil cures cancer just because Jack Herer and Rick Simpson says it does. Jack was so animated, and—for the first time in two years—he was as in touch and lucid as he’d ever been. I’m a wonk, so I was dropping footnote after footnote about this or that claim, saying “Yes, but no, here are the facts,” but that’s not Jack’s world. He was so zealous on everything.”

It was their final argument. As television crews attached mikes to their lapels, St. Pierre accidentally brushed against Herer and noticed he was drenched in sweat.

“His sweat was ice cold,” St. Pierre recalls. “I said, ‘Jack, are you OK?’ He said, ‘I’m OK. I’m fine.’ I think it probably started before he got on stage, because his sweat was so cold. If I wasn’t being pulled in so many different directions then, I would have grabbed someone [and] said that someone needed to get him one of the trailers right now. But he went on the stage, and in the video you could see that he was having a very difficult time.”

Herer collapsed just after the interview, and never recovered. He leaves behind his wife, Jeannie, six children and a brother and sister.

Looking out on K Street, with all the old arguments at an end, St. Pierre remembers Herer as a voice that permanently changed how cannabis is perceived today.

“People describe Jack as a heretic truth-teller of his time, unsanctioned, like Galileo—the country has so few people who will engage in that degree of zealotry,” he says. “Jack will go down in this movement as one of its pillars. If Bill Maher or Willie Nelson or Woody Harrelson or Snoop Dogg or the Cypress Hill boys or Green Day—all the folks when being interviewed, if they wanted to sound serious, they’d cite something from Jack’s books.”

Asked if he’d like to add anything else, St. Pierre says, “One final coda: Jack is rightly the only recipient of two lifetime achievement awards from NORML.”

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