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I first met Jack Herer at a NORML conference in Washington, D.C. There really wasn’t much of a chance for us to connect there since Jack and John Sajo were working hard on their initiative in Oregon. So shortly after I returned to New York City, and Jack returned to L.A., I booked a ticket to visit him to share a vision I’d had after reading an early and brief version of The Emperor Wears No Clothes.

We met at a plush house with a pool in the back. This was not Jack’s pad, but something much more polished. We sat around the pool while I ran my tape recorder and went through Jack’s life story in 45 minutes or so. Then we moved back into the kitchen to smoke a joint and drink some ice tea.

While in the kitchen, I hatched my scheme. I needed Jack to join the hemp legalization group I’d created through a cartoon character named Ed Hassle. What started as a goof, had suddenly morphed into a viable foundation for a national hemp movement.

Using my background in improvisational ritual theater, I’d already had a vision of people marching for hemp freedom, led by a Colonial-style fife and drum corps wearing tricorn hats and flying American flags. Because the founding fathers were hemp farmers and recognized the strategic value of hemp, we needed to take back these symbols from the right wing, who had commandeered them unfairly for propaganda purposes.

“I need you as a leader in The Freedom Fighters,” I told Jack. “By dressing up in Paul Revere outfits, we’re more likely to get on the television news, and if we get interviewed, we can talk about the history of hemp in America.”

NORML didn’t support rallies at the time, mostly because news photos of ragtag hippies didn’t project a suitable image for forging a broad-based pro-marijuana coalition. There was always somewhat of a divide between the Grateful Dead clan, epitomized by Jack, and the more conservative faction, some of whom were lawyers and felt the hippie era was over.

High Times Editor Steven Hager (author of this article) and Jack Herer
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High Times Editor Steven Hager (author of this article) and Jack Herer

I was willing to work with both sides, but bringing back mass rallies was key if we were going to educate the nation quickly about hemp saving the world.

I had a two-pronged plan:

1) Jack needed to go to the Rainbow Family Gathering with me. The Rainbow Family had already accepted marijuana as a legitimate sacrament, even though it’s use was not permitted near Felipe’s Kid Village. I’d recently gone to the Minnesota National (in 1990), and been zapped. My entire world view turned around as I realized the ideals of the 1960s were alive and we could live in a world without violence, if only for a few weeks a year. The gathering was the perfect place to incubate an environmental awakening around hemp.

2) We needed to attend the Hash Bash in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which was the last surviving great pot rally from the late 1960s. But the Hash Bash had dwindled down to a dozen die-hards, and they were worried the event was about to become extinct. Not only did we need to rebuild the Hash Bash, but we needed to bring back all the other Big Ten pot rallies in the neighboring states. “We’ll call it The Hemp Tour.” Some of this conversation ended up on that audio tape, so I plan to dig that out someday and transcribe it so I can prove these facts.

The Freedom Fighters rolled into the Vermont gathering in full force, but tensions in the camp prevented harmony and Jack didn’t attend far as I remember.

The next national Rainbow Gathering was in Colorado and held at a very high elevation, and there was a long, uphill march to the site, followed by a long downhill march. I got pretty tired on the way in, because I pitched camp midway to main circle, on a ridge overlooking the entire gathering. I put my tent up in a small patch of trees and started erecting signs and flags.

Jack trailed in near dark with about seven people in tow, none of whom carried camping gear or even a warm coat. Once it got really dark, they started wondering how they were going to survive the night. I suggested they keep close to the fire. Meanwhile, Jack had a huge medical emergency that started with something he ate and just escalated from there. He’d forgotten to bring his ulcer pills but didn’t provide that essential info to any of the CALM healers for around 48 hours, so nobody could figure out why he was in so much pain.

I ended up taking a hit of acid just to stay up all night to help take care of him. It was just me and another brother feeding the fire to keep Jack’s entourage from freezing to death.

Since our location was right on the trail, and my psychedelic signs were effective, we drew some huge audiences to our daily 420 ceremonies and took advantage of the natural amphitheater that had initially attracted me to the spot.

One brother saw my 420 sign coming in and got really excited. I guess he was from Marin County, because he said he wanted to name his tea kitchen “420” and encourage people to gather there to smoke pot, but was worried that might conflict with our own ceremony. “That’s ok,” I assured him. “Just let people know Jack Herer and Steve Hager are doing a 420 ceremony here every day.”

The major part of this ceremony was a sermon on hemp by Jack, who was still working on polishing his hemp rap. I’d already developed my approach, which was cannabis was the sacrament of peace culture, and 420 represented our holiday, one for celebrating nonviolence.

The Freedom Fighters make their public debut at Hash Bash []
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The Freedom Fighters make their public debut at Hash Bash

When the Freedom Fighters marched into the Diag at the University of Michigan that year, Jack and I were all dressed up in our tricorn hats. Dozens of people had already joined our fledging organization due to full-page ads in High Times and the Freedom Fighters were all dressed up in amazing costumes.

I saw Steve DeAngelo standing on the steps as we paraded in, flags unfurled and drums beating. He was beaming and later would tell me our entrance was the best moment of political street theater he’d seen in decades. The Diag ceremony happened at high noon, so we always had to find an alternative site for our 4:20 ceremonies.

Here’s some little known history of 420 ceremonies: They started with the Waldos in 1971, and passed to the next generation in Marin County, where April 20 ceremonies on Mt. Tam at 4:20 p.m. occurred for three years before park rangers shut down that ceremony.

But from 1992 until at least 1998, I was the only person I know of who was advocating and organizing 420 ceremonies. And I was promoting these ceremonies everywhere I went and through every event I created, including: The Cannabis Cup, Whee, and the Freedom Fighter rallies.

After I got so involved with these events and activities, I voluntarily departed my post as editor-in-chief and moved back to my Upper West Side apartment to concentrate on events and video. That’s when a dude named Mike Edison was moved in to run High Times. But Edison was given a lot more authority than I’d ever had and swiftly became both publisher and editor.

But I could never have a conversation with Edison as he would never stop talking. Didn’t matter what subject might come up, Edison was expert in all things. He started like a kid in a candy store with all that power, but it swiftly eroded because he alienated the entire staff.

That’s when I was brought back as his “adviser.” But my advice was something he could never tolerate. I couldn’t get him to agree with a single story idea of mine and when I brought in the real story of who’d created 420, Edison refused to admit I had uncovered the truth.

When he later wrote a revenge book to assassinate my character, he’d claim that I “suppressed all other stories on the origins of 420, while taking it to cult-like extremes.” Now that quote has been used to promote the sales of his book, which got terrible reviews and sold few copies.

Yes, when the truth arrives, it tends to “suppress” the disinfo tales. That’s what the truth is supposed to do. And if Edison had understood anything about making a successful company, he would have understood it happens through cooperation and mutual respect and building harmony, not by one dude bossing everyone around with his brilliant ideas.

If Jack Herer was alive, he’d tell the true story about the origins of the hemp movement and how we spread 420 ceremonies because he’s the only one who was with me on that mission from the start. What I find so strange is how few people in the movement ever acknowledge my participation in any of these events — and how my side of the story never seems to make it into the mass media, which is constantly being filled with bogus stories about 420 every year. And how Edison’s bullshit quote ends up on Wikipedia to belittle my role in this history.

Steven Hager

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