A Column by John Sinclair
If all goes well, by the time you read this column I’ll have completed my 5-month residency at the New Orleans Institute for the Imagination and be back in Amsterdam to start the summer. I’ve had a great time in the crescent City, spending many quality hours and days with my daughter Celia and my hosts Frenchy the Painter (uptown by Oak Street) and Jimmy Cass (downtown in the 9th Ward), playing some gigs with Tom Worrell and with Carlo Ditta, sitting in with Henry Butler and Glen David Andrews, and smoking consistently excellent illegal weed provided by one of my oldest and dearest pals.
Sad to say, despite its almost endless cultural riches that bubble up from the streets without relent, Louisiana has some of the most ridiculous and oppressive marijuana laws in these United States. Possession remains a felony with a two-year prison sentence and/or a $5,000 fine, and additional convictions may result in increasingly draconian prison terms.
Like Michigan, Louisiana is ruled by a right-wing Republican governor supported by both houses of the Republican-controlled Legislature and a like-minded Supreme Court, so there’s not much hope of relief. A recent attempt to cut the prison sentences and fines for marijuana possession just failed to pass a vote in the legislature, with the usual drivel offered as an excuse to maintain the ugly status quo.
My readers will be aware that I’ve always considered Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette as sort of a modern-day Attila The Hun with respect to his stance on the medical marijuana act and its implementation, but I was presently surprised to read that he has come out dead against the sale of any of the artworks held by the Detroit Institute of Arts as a means of meeting the city’s massive debt obligations under any plan instituted by the city’s current Emergency Manager.
It’s surprising to find this degree of support for art in the philistine precincts of the current state administration where the main intent seems to be to cut the heart out of public policy at every available opportunity and sell out every possible thing for more cash money to be added to the overflowing coffers of the rich people.
Art and culture be damned! Later for social welfare and universal health care! Death to the unions! Kill the benefits and rob the workers of their pensions! Take the weed out of the hands of the patients and put the recreational tokers in jail!
This is an ugly world they’ve constructed for us, and we need art in our lives now more than ever. It’s a public treasure that belongs to all the people, a belief that was underlined in recent years when voters in metropolitan Detroit communities voted sufficient tax money to support the Detroit Institute of Arts so that the public could enjoy its artworks without an admission charge.
While it’s essential to maintain an appropriate level of support for our arts institutions and make sure that their collections remain intact and accessible to the public, it’s even more important that we continue to create and produce art of all kinds and increase our exposure to great music, great poetry and writings, great paintings and other visual arts.
By making art we not only invent and create forms that can give expression to our unique thoughts and feelings as human beings struggling to survive and grow and express ourselves in a hostile environment, but we also bring beauty and inspiration to our fellow citizens and point out ways and means they may adapt in their own efforts to make sense out of our world.
Art may be collected and displayed and performed in major arts institutions, but it doesn’t begin there—it just ends up there. Art begins with the individual and with small collectives of individual artists. Anyone can make art. There are no boundaries to the creation of art except perhaps for the difficulty in sometimes obtaining the necessary materials to realize the artist’s conceptions. But we can make art out of whatever materials we have to work with—mental, emotional and material—and nobody can stop us.
In terms of making and appreciating art, in my experience, nothing is more conducive to the full experience of art and creativity than the careful application of cannabis. Weed helps open our minds, our eyes, our ears and our hearts to the experience of art at its highest. At the same time, nothing is better suited to the experience of getting high than digging some high-quality art in a convivial atmosphere where the senses may be fully trained on the thoughts, feelings, and expressions presented by the occasion.
Instead of reducing our intelligence and emotional capacity as the seemingly inescapable products of consumer culture are carefully designed to do, high art helps expand our consciousness and our powers of receptivity like nothing else in life. That’s why they keep it from us and threaten to sell off our public art treasures and refuse to expose us to the great music and art of America and the world unless we are somehow inspired to seek out and obtain for ourselves the myriad forms that are presently barred from public consciousness.
The purpose of consumer culture is to simplify and degrade the consumer as well as the product, as William Burroughs put it more than half a century ago—to make us buy whatever they want us to buy and pay as much as they want us to pay for it, over and over again. The more simple-minded and degraded the product, the more simple-minded and degraded is the consumer of that product. That’s why our popular entertainment has been relentlessly reduced to its present idiotic forms, and why it’s so hard to gain knowledge of and access to the real thing in the face of the non-stop assault of low-grade popular culture.
Exposure to great art and the process of creating it is our only defense against the mindless onslaught of popular imagery, pop music, television programs, movies, games and other forms of reductive culture. We must have our art, just as we must have our weed. And we can get it, we can make it, we can experience and appreciate it for ourselves, whether the dominant culture wants us to or not. That’s up to us.
One last little thread before I run out of space: NORML.org recently reported that the black arrest rate for marijuana offenses is four times that of whites, according to an ACLU study of 945 counties across the country. "We found that in virtually every county in the country, police have … enforc[ed] marijuana laws in a racially biased manner," said Ezekiel Edwards, the director of the ACLU's Criminal Law Reform Project and the lead author of the report.
The report also estimated that states in 2010 spent an estimated $3.6 billion enforcing marijuana possession laws, a 30 percent increase from ten years earlier. This total included $1,747,157,206 in police time, $1,371,200,815 to adjudicate marijuana possession cases, and $495,611,826 to incarcerate individuals for marijuana possession. In 2010, the report said, police made nearly 854,000 arrests for marijuana violations.
In the words of the New York Times lead editorial of Sunday, June 16, 2013: “The costly, ill-advised ‘war on marijuana’ might fairly be described as a tool of racial oppression.”
—New Orleans Institute for the Imagination
June 18-20, 2013