From 1996 through 1999, HIGH TIMES also published HEMP TIMES, a sister publication that promoted the hemp industry. This interview appeared in the Fall 1997 issue.
He sits easily on his Harley, relaxed and self-assured. It’s been a long time since Easy Rider left tracks on American cinema, but Peter Fonda doesn’t look too different. He’s releasing his autobiography - Don’t Tell Dad - next year, and has just starred in Ulee’s Gold, a comeback which won him critical acclaim. He’s clever and clearly revels in “painting the big picture” with a whimsical brush. But mostly he is persuasive, and particularly adroit at sounding an environmental wake-up call.
When did you first learn that hemp wasn’t marijuana?
Long before I knew about marijuana. I’m an avid sailor, so I knew about the days when braided nylon and stabilized Dacron or any of that other crap wasn’t available. I remember appearing on the Smothers Brothers show [the highly rated, politically controversial TV variety show of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s] and doing a sketch where I was standing aboard a ship and shouting out orders: “Raise the formers, shoot in the topsails, smoke that hemp!”
That was a long time ago. Didn’t the joke pass people by?
Maybe, but we sure knew what hemp was. Tommy and Dickie Smothers knew about hemp. My real understanding of hemp and its benefits occurred when I discovered paper could be made from hemp. Look at the maps that show the forestation of the planet at the turn of the century. It is so dramatic how much we’ve cut down.
Is deforestation your number-one issue?
No, breathing is. I’m not an addictive personality. I don’t have to have anything except oxygen, water and solid fuel. But right now, the amount of oxygen-consuming things – that’s you, me, our children, our children-to-be, every dog, cat, cow and horse – far outdistances oxygen-producing things.
People should know that long before we run out of gasoline we’re going to run out of oxygen, because we are destroying our oxygen-producing elements. People don’t believe it. They think I’m being belligerent – that such an idea serves no valuable purpose because it’s so negative.
Not true. I think it’s an eye-opener. Oxygen is the most important fuel in the system. Five minutes without it, it’s “Fall down. Go boom.” You may not get up again unless somebody’s nearby who can perform CPR and get you going.
You can go maybe 10 days without water, maybe 30 or 40 days without solid fuel. We’re talking from minutes to days to weeks, so let’s take care of the important mess – our most important fuel.
It’s a shock when people find out what the real link is between our existence and our disappearance. People discover real fast that there is no such thing as an alternative lifestyle. The only alternative lifestyle we have is extinction.
Trees are the most civilized things I’ve ever come across. Next are porpoises. I haven’t even found a position where I could put humans. I don’t think we’re civilized at all; I think we’re just savages. Look around you and tell me if this isn’t savagery we’ve committed on this planet.
You paint a bleak picture.
Yeah, but I do maintain for religious types that this is the Kingdom of the Father. As a matter of fact, I wrote a prayer and put it in the first movie I directed. It’s all about the disciples and Jesus and what Jesus said to his disciples. It’s all true. It’s not something I fantasized.
Which film was it?
The Hired Hand. The prayers ends with this: “The disciples said to Jesus, ‘When will the Kingdom of the Father come?,’ and Jesus said, ‘They will not say “look here” or “see there,” for the Kingdom of the Father is spread upon the earth and man does not see it.’”
This is the Garden. We’re living in it. We don’t get another shot at it. We are no different from the planet; the planet is 90 percent liquid; we’re 90 percent liquid. We have an aura just like the planet has an aura. There is a reason why we’re here. We belong here, even though we’re savages.
So what’s the answer?
We could stop flushing our toilets. This is fairly hard, but it would be a very important step. Realistically though, I don’t think we can get a lot of people to go for that one. But we can stop cutting down trees to make paper.
The world is not going to go all-electronic. So let’s grow hemp. Let’s make paper from hemp. Because when we make paper from hemp, unlike making paper from wood pulp, we don’t need such awful chemicals. And when we recycle hemp, we can recycle 100 percent of it again and again.
All the tobacco companies are lobbying in the wrong direction. If you got all these guys growing tobacco and people are pissed off – well, hell! Just move right into hemp production.
They don’t need to add anything agriculturally to grow it. It doesn’t need to be cured, so it doesn’t take as long to prepare. You can grow more of it and get better money. It’s sure a lot better for the environment than cotton.
How do you respond when someone comments: “Geez, Peter, you got this huge motorcycle here..."
Yeah, I’m burning oxygen, I’m burning fossil fuels – but not as much as I do in my Mercedes.
But do we stop building cars? You don’t have to take anybody’s industry away in order for us to survive or for oxygen to survive. Let’s concentrate on building up those things that produce oxygen – like hemp. Let’s not cut down trees – these natural filters all over the place that help us clean the air.
Every year you participate in the Love Ride. What’s that all about?
I’m a very fortunate person. My three children are healthy and have all their faculties. They can perform all the functions necessary for life. They are contributors.
But many of our children aren’t healthy. I’ve ridden motorcycles for a long time and motorcyclists have always had this image of being untrustworthy, a little bit thoughtless. But the Love Ride is great because in one day about 25,000 riders come together, take a 50-mile ride, hear great music, have a big barbecue, look at each others’ motorcycles, yak it up and raise 1.2 million bucks for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. It’s something that needs attention – and the MD Association is not just muscular dystrophy. It includes 40 other neuro-muscular diseases.
Genetics research is advancing to the point where we will be able to correct human defect, to extend life. These are things we can correct, things we can do something about.
It takes time and money. Money is part of the thing that I help raise. It’s not just the Love Ride. I do this all across the country. Harley-Davidson thinks I’m doing it for Harley-Davidson. When I’m on the board of directors and a member of the company, then I’ll be doing it for the company. It’s just a matter of time before they get smart enough to realize they should do this anyway. Unfortunately, nobody’s doing it for hemp.
Not a bad idea, though.
A Hemp Ride would be excellent!
It could bring a lot of attention to hemp’s uses: food, fiber, fuel, paper –
All from one weed. But the Chinese are gonna lick us. They’re gonna beat us to it. What do you think? Are we going to spend $50,000 when we can spend $5,000 buying a shitpile of paper to put our paper products together?
We’ll buy cheap. That’s the way the market works. And soon the cheapest way to make paper will be through hemp. The Chinese, who were cutting down all the trees so they could keep warm in the winter, killing all the birds so they wouldn’t eat the seeds – at least they caught on to the idea that they could contribute by making paper through hemp.
Oh, but not moral America! I’d like to see Canada or Mexico make a ton of money making paper for The New York Times and say “Nyah, nyah, nyah!!” to the politicians. It will be a lot less expensive than what Georgia Pacific is charging them, or whoever does the pulpwork.
I’ve been in the pulp mills. I know what kind of pollutants go into the process. Hemp will eliminate this. But in the meantime, there’s fire and brimstone out there.
So how do you make it mainstream?
Well, you can vote for me for President.
If I were President I would declare martial law immediately and dismiss both houses of Congress. I would put the Supreme Court on full-time duty 24 hours around the clock. I don’t give a rat’s ass! Put cots in your quarters and take naps. We got work to do here!
Call in all federal judges. They’re all fucking corrupt as hell. Make them the clerks of the Court while we oversee an orderly process of electing a new government. We want to dismantle the government and elect a new one.
Let’s replace the old system with people who will fulfill rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And what is that anyway? Enough oxygen to live a normal life? Paper without killing trees, maybe?
But until the major powers start talking with their major bucks, until they are able to define what “hemp” is, it will not pass in our Congress. That’s why I say get rid of Congress and replace it with a new Congress that will undertake a scientific approach to life rather than a morality approach. Let’s elect politicians who actually know and understand research.
How do you think you’re generally perceived?
I found out a long time ago that people don’t bother crazy people, but I don’t care how I’m perceived. I spent so many years being perceived as Henry Fonda’s son and had no idea who the hell that was. I didn’t know who he was, so how could I know who the son was?
Easy Rider had a lot to do with how the public perceives you.
There’s not a place I go where someone doesn’t say, ‘Hey Captain America! Hey, Easy Rider!” Sometimes I think, “Wait a minute, that was my eighth film. I’ve done forty-seven.”
Do you mind that?
Oh, I used to get really pissed about that. I do actually do other things besides riding bikes. I actually am an articulate person. But perceptions, to me, are very suspect. I want to be perceived well by my children and by my grandchildren. I want to be perceived as a man who contributed, who cared, who loved, who was there and who kept his word.