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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

FREE THE WEED! By John Sinclair

Hello, fellow vipers and registered marijuana patients and welcome to the 40th annual Hash Bash in Ann Arbor and the 41st consecutive gathering of jubilant smokers on the Diag to celebrate and advance the cause of marijuana legalization.

The first Hash Bash was called on the Diag for April 1, 1972 and there’s a good story to go with that. But the first smoke-in materialized a year earlier as an unorganized incursion into the very heart of the University of Michigan campus, where a boisterous contingent of local hippies met up on April Fools Day to get down and smoke some weed together.

Although I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, this writer was denied the opportunity to participate in the first celebration on the Diag due to my incarceration at the State Prison of Southern Michigan at Jackson, just 40 miles to the west but a whole different world altogether, where I was serving the second year of a 9-1/2 to 10-year sentence for possession of two marijuana cigarettes and working with my extensive collective of lawyers and fellow radicals to perfect my appeal in the Michigan Supreme Court.

At the time Michigan still callously misclassified marijuana as a narcotic— against all scientific evidence to the contrary—and punished convicted smokers with up to 10 years in prison. My actual crime had been giving the two joints as a gift to an undercover policewoman from the Detroit Narcotics Bureau three days before Christmas in 1966, and I was charged under the Sales of Narcotics statutes which mandated a minimum sentence of 20 years and a maximum of life imprisonment for marijuana transactions of any sort.

I was determined to challenge the constitutionality of the Michigan narcotics statutes from the moment of my arrest on January 24, 1967, about two years after I had founded DETROIT LEMAR as an attempt to challenge the marijuana laws in the court of public opinion. By the date of my arrest I had been blessed with legal representation by the great Detroit attorney Sheldon Otis and his associate, Justin “Chuck” Ravitz, then just out of law school. They agreed not only to defend me in Detroit Recorders Court against this scurrilous charge but also to take up my cause in general.

Over the next five years, many progressive lawyers and legal workers contributed to my defense and post-conviction appeals, with special thanks to a young Kenny Mogill who wrote the appellate brief that conquered the Supreme Court in March 1972. But we challenged the state’s definition of marijuana as a narcotic and the severity of the prescribed sentences for possession and sale in
Recorders Court
, the Michigan Court of Appeals, and the Michigan Supreme Court for two and a half years

even before I went to trial in July 1969. After the Supremes refused to rule on the issue absent an actual conviction, we went to trial and quickly secured a guilty verdict by waiving our defense in order to keep the focus on the constitutional challenge, but the late judge Robert J. Colombo denied my petition for appeal bond and I was remanded to the custody of the State of Michigan, soon to be shipped to the maximum-security Marquette Branch Prison in the U.P. for the first year of my sentence. The Michigan Court of Appeals upheld Colombo’s denial of appeal bond on the grounds that I was a “danger to society”—that ruling makes another story for another time—and I spent a total of 29 months in prison before bond was finally granted and I was released from Jackson
on December 13, 1971.

During this period my comrades in the White Panther Party—later called the Rainbow People’s Party—spearheaded a campaign to gain my freedom that included almost weekly benefit concerts and dances to raise funds for my legal defense and keep my case before the public. The April Fools gathering on the Diag in 1971 had its part in this process, which culminated on December 10 when John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Stevie Wonder, Bobby Seale, Phil Ochs, Archie Shepp, Commander Cody, Bob Seger and a host of others congregated at Chrysler Arena for the John Sinclair Freedom Rally. We also pursued my appeal in the courts and lobbied intensively in the state legislature for a new marijuana law. In fact, the Freedom Rally was scheduled in December to try to bring pressure on the legislature to pass a bill removing marijuana from the narcotics statutes and establish greatly reduced penalties for its sale and use. To make a long story short, the bill was passed on December 9, the Freedom Rally was staged December 10, and I was released three days later.

The new marijuana law stipulated that marijuana was to be considered a “controlled substance” with a maximum sentence upon conviction of one year for use and four years for sale. The existing law was to remain in effect until April 1, 1972, but on March 9 the Supreme Court overturned my conviction and declared the existing law unconstitutional, thus creating a beautiful period in Michigan when weed was completely without legal proscription for the next three weeks.

On April 1st the first Hash Bash took place as an act of defiance against the reinstatement of any laws against marijuana—as a declaration that we wouldn’t accept any form of interference with this important component of our way of life. It was a tremendous celebration, and three days later Ann Arbor elected two members of the Human Rights Party to City Council and took the first step toward enacting the infamous $5.00 fine for all marijuana violations in the city.

I always wondered who came up with the name for the Hash Bash, but it wasn’t until five or six years ago when I ran into my old comrade Walden Simper at the Berkeley Patients Collective and she told me she was designing the poster for the gathering on the Diag when the name HASH BASH appeared on her mental screen and she penciled it into the design. It’s been there ever since.

In closing, I’d like to dedicate this first column to the memory of two great Americans who have recently passed on: the heroic attorney for the people, Leonard Weinglass, and the prophet and pioneering mass producer of LSD, Augustus Owsley Stanley III whose products were surely present on that day in 1971 when the Hash Bash came into being. Thank you, gentlemen, for all the good you have done.

John Sinclair

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