Merle Haggard Joins the Marijuana Business From Beyond the Grave

Mama, we're not in Muskogee anymore. Country legend Merle Haggard is throwing his hat into the marijuana market from beyond the grave. 

Haggard died on April 6, 2016, on what would have been his 79th birthday. Before his death, however, he had joined forces with the Colorado Weed Co. in 2015 to develop connoisseur-grade marijuana strains. Now, after his death, his daughter Jenessa Haggard-Bennett and her husband, Brian Bennett, are working with the Colorado Weed Co. to dedicate a number of strains to her father.

"We're starting out with what Merle liked to smoke," says Michael Smith, his business partner at Colorado Weed Co. 

According to Haggard-Bennett, her father was still on tour throughout his seventies, doing over 100 shows a year. She says that cannabis helped keep him going.

"He was out [performing] every two weeks. He was doing all that in his seventies.... He believed [marijuana] could cure a whole bunch of things," she says.

Smith agrees, saying Haggard expressed a similar sentiment to him when they were planning what his strains would be like.

"The sativas kept him going, kept him creative, kept him getting out there and being able to play. He did contribute a lot of his success on the road to sativas," Smith says.

Though in recent years his weed-infused hangouts with fellow country star and Colorado ganjapreneur Willie Nelson were well documented, Merle wasn't always a cannabis advocate. He even wrote "Okie From Muskogee," which became an anthem for anti-hippie sentiment, in the early 1970s. The song begins with the lyrics, "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee/We don’t take no trips on LSD/We don’t burn no draft cards down on Main Street/We like livin’ right and bein’ free."

The single, which he co-wrote with Roy Edward Burris, was released on September 29, 1969, and by November 15 of that year, it reached No. 1 on Billboard magazine's Hot Country Singles chart. It also became a minor pop hit, reaching 41 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The single, along with the album of the same name, was named the Country Music Association Single and Album of the Year in 1970.

Despite its becoming one of his most famous songs, he later regretted the sentiments expressed in the lyrics, as chronicled in a story published by the Telegraph.

“Sometimes I wish I hadn’t written 'Okie,'” he told reporter Bryan Di Salvatore of Ornery magazine in 1990. “I was indelibly stamped with this political image — this political musical spokesman or whatever. I had to play that song every night for eighteen years."

The song later led him to discuss his views on marijuana and hippie culture and the way that his opinions evolved over time. "Nobody knew what the Vietnam War was about. Everybody thought that marijuana was the reason that kids were walking around with their mouths open, and people were just really uninformed," he told The Tribune in 2006.

In 2005, he told Men's Journal that he felt he had been brainwashed into believing pot was bad. "At the time I wrote 'Okie From Muskogee,' I didn't smoke. I had been brainwashed like most of America about what marijuana would and wouldn't do," he said. "But if a guy doesn't learn anything in fifty years, there's something wrong with him. I've learned a lot about it, and America has, too."

According to his daughter, Haggard started to change his tune on the topic of marijuana when a doctor recommended he use it for medicinal purposes. “A good friend of his who was a doctor recommended it because he was touring a lot and wasn’t able to sleep, and so he recommended smoking to help relax him,” Haggard-Bennett says.

His daughter could not confirm an exact date or year that Haggard began smoking marijuana, but said he smoked for well over twenty years.

“I don’t know how long ago that was, but I know it was twenty-plus years,” Haggard-Bennett says.

Her husband helped his father-in-law grow medical marijuana on his property up until his death. “He was just a regular guy to me. He just happened to be famous," Bennett says. "He was into the same things I was into, and I related to him a lot. We had a mutual bond, I guess you’d say, between us in growing." The couple continues to live on Merle’s 280-acre property in California.

The strains, which will be called "Merle's Girls," have not hit the shelves yet but are expected to launch in the next few months. The name was chosen by his daughter from a time when Merle sponsored a girls' soccer team in California. Once he signed on, they changed the team name to Merle's Girls.

Haggard's partners with Colorado Weed Co. plan to start out with recreational product and then eventually expand into medical. There is not a set release date, but Colorado will not be the only state carrying the strains. They will start here, but regardless of California’s vote in November, they plan to sell medicinal strains there once they’re developed and on the market.

“That’s going to have a lot to do with California’s vote... Definitely [medical] will be in California, even if they don’t pass it recreationally,” Smith says.

They also plan to introduce the bud in Oregon and Washington, hoping to cover the West Coast. 
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Kate McKee Simmons interned at the National Catholic Reporter, was a reporter for the New York Post, and spent a brief stint in Israel learning international reporting before writing for Westword.