Legal pot comes to California – thank Jack

Jack Herer (left) with fellow activist Dana Beal at a marijuana festival in 1989.

On Monday, California became the sixth state in which recreational marijuana is sold legally — with the same absence of fanfare that marked the start of legal sales in Colorado four years ago.

Good tempered crowds lined up at the few dozen dispensaries that opened on New Year’s Day to make the first buys in what is expected to be a $7 billion-plus market by 2020.

As the San Jose Mercury News reported, “The sky didn’t fall. Stoned zombies didn’t crash cars. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions didn’t jump out of the bushes with handcuffs.”

The relaxed normality of the day was the perfect counter-point to the decades of hysterical viciousness that have defined the war on marijuana. In California it had been going on for more than a century; the state first banned pot in 1913.

Legal marijuana in California is going to be Huge. California is the most populous state in the country with some 39.5 million people, representing about 12 percent of the country’s population.

With the start of legal sales in California, the number of Americans living in states where they can buy recreational pot legally more than doubled overnight, to close to 60 million.

(Eight states have legalized recreational sales, but two, Massachusetts and Maine haven’t let them start yet.)

Statewide, more than 400 cannabis businesses currently hold licenses (mostly medical), with an additional 1,800 license applications (mostly recreational) awaiting processing. About 165 cultivation licenses have also been issued, with more expected.

In Berkeley, Mayor Jesse Arreguin and state Senator Nancy Skinner were on hand for a ribbon-cutting ceremony at a dispensary.

It’s a shame that Jack Herer didn’t live to see it.

Herer, who died in 2010, was a Southern California head shop owner who devoted his life to getting marijuana legalized. In 1985, he wrote a book titled The Emperor Wears No Clothes, which was a Whole Earth Catalog of marijuana and hemp lore.

The book contained a trove of information on the history of marijuana and hemp, the medical and economic benefits of cannabis, the conspiracy that made marijuana illegal and the breath-taking damage that marijuana prohibition had done, and a clarion call for re-legalization. 

It has now gone through 12 editions, sold more than 600,000 copies and is arguably the single most influential book in the struggle to get marijuana legalized.

The late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once famously said, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” Jack’s book un-earthed the facts about cannabis and hemp that vermin like Harry Anslinger, William Randolph Hearst and their successors had successfully suppressed for two generations. It really did change the prevailing paradigm as far as marijuana was concerned.

In addition to publishing The Emperor, as he called his book, Herer was the dean of marijuana legalization activists. In 1974, when he and his friend Edwin “Captain Ed” M. Adair III were 34 years old, they swore an oath “to work every day to legalize marijuana and get all pot prisoners out of jail, until we were dead, marijuana was legal, or we could quit when we turned 84.”

Herer was true to his oath and worked for legalization until the day he died. He traveled the country, gave scores of speeches and interviews and even ran for president twice,as the Grassroots Party candidate, (getting 3,875 votes in 1992).

I met Jack two or three times when he spoke in Colorado. He genuinely believed that hemp could save the world by being an alternative source of food, fiber, fuel and medicine.

During one of his speeches at CU, he cited anecdotal evidence and obscure studies that indicated marijuana had both anti-cancer and anti-arthritic properties — claims that were considered over-the-top by “serious people” at the time. I had never heard them before and started chasing them down myself. To my surprise, they checked out. Today a growing body of rigorous research is validating them.

In retrospect, Herer was the Thomas Paine of marijuana. The Emperor was the Common Sense of the marijuana revolution. Like Paine, Herer was passionate, idiosyncratic and relentless.

When legal sales began in California at 12:01 a.m. on New Year’s Day, he should have been at the head of the line.