“I gave the first speech about marijuana fifty years ago,” John Sinclair says. But at the Hash Bash in April, Sinclair, seventy-three, left the speeches to comedian Tommy Chong and others. Instead, Michigan’s original marijuana martyr read “Spiritual,” his poem honoring the great saxophonist John Coltrane:
what is jazz, but spirituals
played thru saxophones
& trombones …
In December 1966, Sinclair gave two marijuana cigarettes to a pair of undercover police officers in Detroit who were posing as volunteers for the “Committee to Legalize Marijuana.” At the time, the state considered the drug a narcotic and Sinclair, the founder of the White Panther Party, a dangerous revolutionary. In 1969, he was convicted of possession and sentenced to nine-and-a-half to ten years.
“I never expected to go to prison,” Sinclair recalled by phone a few days before this year’s annual pro-pot rally on April 4. “In order to challenge the laws I had to have a conviction–so I went to trial and took the conviction. Then I appealed.
“Normally they would have set an appeal bond, and I’d be free until the [state] Supreme Court ruling–but they wouldn’t give me a bond. I was a political prisoner–they kept me for two-and-a-half years.”
Sinclair was still locked up in December 1971, when “John Lennon and Stevie Wonder came to Ann Arbor to get me out of prison.” Days after Lennon sang the lyrics “they gave him ten [years] for two [joints]” at the “Free John Sinclair” concert at Crisler Arena, the Michigan Supreme Court ordered Sinclair released. A few months later, the court overturned his conviction, calling the sentence “cruel and unusual punishment.”
The first Hash Bash was celebrated a few months later. According to the Ann Arbor Sun, a radical weekly put out by Sinclair’s group (by then renamed the Rainbow People’s Party), it started with “a local student drug dealer … Spray can in hand, he festooned (with an eye toward history no doubt) across the wall of one of the Big U’s buildings the now famous words: ANN ARBOR HASH FEST–APRIL 1ST.”
That first event in 1972 was followed by a get-out-the-vote rally at Hill Auditorium to support the radical Human Rights Party in an upcoming city election. Two HRP candidates won council seats, where they teamed up with Democrats to pass the city’s landmark $5 pot law.
Early Bashes featured plenty of public consumption, but the U-M eventually subdued that–since creating its own police force in 1990, it’s enforced the tougher state marijuana law on campus. To Sinclair, that just “points out the idiocy of the University of Michigan. You know, they send their police in there and they invoke state laws and they make that hour on the Diag as unpleasant as they can. Honestly, it’s childish!” he says with a gravelly chuckle. “It used to just be a relaxed gathering … Now, it’s tense, totally tense, to me. You can’t smoke a joint, for example.
“The saving grace is that after that on the Diag, everyone goes over to the Monroe Street Fair with bands, centered around Dominick’s pizza. The Ann Arbor police seal off Monroe St. and let people do what they want. It’s a great event, where they invoke only the Ann Arbor laws. They can give them a [now $25] ticket if they want to, but they don’t want to. It’s been going on for years; nothing bad happens, everyone has a good time. It’s a little slice of the past to recapture all the good stuff from the old days.”
Sinclair hasn’t been to every Hash Bash. “I retired from the whole movement in ’77. Then [subsequent organizer] Adam Brooke brought me back in ’94 or ’95, and I’ve been to most of them since then. I like it. I’m glad they still do it.”
After all these years, he adds, “I think now we are getting close to the end of the race. My prayer has always been that I could live long enough to see the ultimate victory of this simple idea.”
“This simple idea” is the legalization of marijuana. Currently recreational marijuana is legal in Alaska, Oregon, Colorado, and Washington. Nineteen other states, including Michigan, allow medical use.
Sinclair is enthused about local efforts–“this interesting campaign to legalize marijuana in Michigan in city after city. I thought it was a stroke of brilliance. [Detroit pot activist] Tim Beck engineered a lot of that. I think they are making great strides,” with seventeen cities passing legalization measures so far.
Though Sinclair is a proud recreational user, these days he’s also a registered medical marijuana patient. What is he taking marijuana for? “The same reason I’ve been taking it my adult life: it works, it makes me feel better. Now I’m old, so I’ve got more aches and pains, and it works even better,” he says, laughing. “It helps with aches and pains, your depression, your angst, your anxiety, [with] being a citizen in the world.”
Sinclair’s decades of use don’t seem to have dulled his memory. On the fortieth anniversary of the Free John Sinclair concert, Sinclair wrote a detailed story for the Ann Arbor District Library called “Back in the Day: An Abbreviated Memoir of Ann Arbor 1968-1975,” recalling dates and incidents with precision.
Compliment Sinclair on his writing, and he’ll credit his favorite herb: “I was blasted for all of them. High on marijuana. As a creative person, a writer and a poet, I find it not only valuable, but necessary.”
Does he ever come down?
“Not if I can help it,” he says, laughing.
Sinclair spent March and April in Detroit with his daughter Sunny and thirteen-year-old granddaughter Beyonce. This month he’ll be in New Orleans with his other daughter, Celia, then on to Amsterdam for the summer. “I’m not going to settle anywhere,” he says. “I’m too old to settle. I’ve settled most of my life. I like to move around, and if I can get away with it, I’m going to do it.”
Would he use marijuana around his granddaughter? “If she wanted to get high with me, it would be fine with me, but she’d have to ask me,” he says–then adds that his daughter, too, would need to supervise that decision: “We are all here together.”
As a medical marijuana patient, he now has a dispensary full of options for his own use. Does he smoke? Vape? Eat marijuana brownies?
“I’m a joint person,” Sinclair says. “I roll them and smoke them.”