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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A Column by John Sinclair

First off, I’d like to thank all the people in my home town of Flint who came out to celebrate my birthday with me and the great band called Glowb at Churchill’s earlier this month. I had a great time and I’d like to give thanks to my friend Chris Kotarski and my publisher, Ben Horner, who threw the party for me.

I was born October 2, 1941 in Women’s Hospital on the west side of Flint. My earliest years were spent in a little house on the bend of M-21 in Elba, just east of Potter’s Lake, but I grew up in Davison, went away to college for a couple of years and then returned to Flint and graduated from the University of Michigan—Flint College in the spring of 1964.


I smoked my first joint in Flint just about 50 years ago and I’ve been getting high on a daily basis ever since—except for the three years I was incarcerated in one Michigan prison or another. I was first busted for weed in the fall of 1964, not long after I’d moved to Detroit to attend graduate school in American Literature at Wayne State University, and I began a lifetime of marijuana legalization advocacy in January 1965.

I’ve been a poet since I was in college and I think it’s important to note that the marijuana legalization movement was kicked off by a pair of eminent modern poets in New York City: Allen Ginsberg and Ed Sanders. One day very early in 1965 I received in the U.S. mail an announcement that the bards had organized a social action group called New York LEMAR (Legalize Marijuana) and called their first demonstration for later in January. This is the demonstration that produced the classic photo of Allen Ginsberg in an Uncle Sam top hat carrying a placard that said POT IS FUN.


I took a few tokes, slid a stencil into my electric typewriter and punched out a message heralding the formation of Detroit LEMAR, then strapped the stencil onto the mimeograph machine at our Detroit Artists Workshop and printed out a couple hundred flyers for immediate distribution around the WSU campus.

That’s how I got my start as a marijuana crusader. I was busted a second time by the Detroit Narcotics Squad in August 1965— marijuana was then legally classified as a narcotic— and I wanted to mount an immediate challenge to the constitutionality of the Michigan statute. But my attorney, a great guy called Mike Leven, explained that the penalty upon conviction for my crime of delivering marijuana would be a minimum mandatory sentence of 20 years in prison, with the possibility of life imprisonment.


My attorney convinced me that he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he was responsible for losing my case in Recorders Court and causing me to be sent to prison for 20 years to life. So he talked me into copping a plea and serving six months in the Detroit House of Correction with another three years of probation added on to the two years I was already serving.


I got out of DeHoCo in August 1966 and returned to my life in Detroit as a poet, underground journalist, cultural organizer and vocal opponent of the marijuana laws and the police who enforced them. As a consequence, I was busted for the third time in January 1967 for giving two joints to an undercover policewoman three days before Christmas. This time I was determined to fight the law under which I expected to be charged year after year, and happily I found sympathetic—and daring—legal representative by a great attorney, Sheldon Otis, who was soon joined by a young associate named Jusrin “Chuck” Ravitz. They prepared a comprehensive legal challenge to the Michigan marijuana law and began to pursue it in Detroit Recorders Court, which appointed a three-judge panel—for the first time in Michigan jurisprudence—to consider our constitutional challenge.


The panel ruled that the issue couldn’t be decided without a conviction on appeal, and both the Michigan Court of Appeals and the Michigan Supreme Court upheld this decision, so I went to trial 2-1/2 years later, in July 1969, on a charge of possession of two joints. (The transfer charge was dropped the day before trial.)
In order to keep the record clear for our appeal, I offered no defense except on constitutional grounds: that marijuana was not a narcotic and a ten-year sentence for possession was cruel and unusual punishment. My conviction was entered and I was sentenced on July 28, 1969 to 9-1/2 to 10 years in prison.

Despite the lofty nature of my constitutional challenge to the law and the innocuous nature of my crime, the courts would not allow me an appeal bond while my case wound its way through the appeals process and I was sent to Jackson Prison, then to Marquette Prison in the Upper Peninsula for a year under maximum security, then back to Jackson under maximum security for another year and a half. The Michigan Court of Appeals refused appeal bond on the grounds that I was a danger to society, a decision also upheld by the Michigan Supreme Court, so I remained under severe incarceration until December 1971 when the Michigan Legislature enacted a new drug law that removed marijuana from the narcotics classification and reduced the sentence for possession to one year.

Since I’d already served 29 months of my unconstitutional sentence and my argument on appeal had already been heard by the Supreme Court, I was granted an appeal bond and released from prison on December 13, 1971. Three months later the Supreme Court agreed that the previous marijuana law was unconstitutional and reversed my conviction. I’ve been free ever since.

Marijuana has remained illegal all this time, although the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act of  2008 passed by the vote of 62% of Michigan citizens has opened a window onto a new era for the marijuana user, although law enforcement is loath to give up its power over the lives of the innocent people who are victimized by the bizarre machinations of the War On Drugs.

I don’t know exactly what made me recount this story here except perhaps the passing of an extraordinary milestone in the form of my 70th birthday and the current agitation to further reform the marijuana laws and decriminalize our beloved herb after another 40 years of arrests and convictions of thousands and thousands of marijuana smokers. It’s time to take the police out of the picture as far as this benevolent herb and powerful medicine is concerned. In fact, it’s way past time, and it can be done by continuing the struggle in the courts and at the ballot box to institute a rational and humane methodology for responding to and answering the needs of people who smoke marijuana for whatever reasons.


It’s none of their business!

Let It Grow! VoteGreen in 2012

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