Thursday, April 3, 2014
FREE THE WEED 37 - John Sinclair
Highest greetings from New Orleans, where I’m about to leave for Detroit after the coldest and wettest Mardi Gras of modern times that pretty much took the fun out of everything. It’s been cold here well into the middle of March, although nothing like the winter in Detroit, and I guess it’ll take a while more for me to get some warm weather here in the States.
Maybe the sun will come out for the Hash Bash in Ann Arbor on April 5th, because when it does the people who gather on the Diag and then at the Monroe Street Fair have the most beautiful time getting high in public, digging the music, shopping at the booths, munching some of Domenick’s pizza and sharing hours of exciting and fulfilling human fellowship under the sun.
Even if it’s cold or—perish the thought—raining for the Hash Bash celebration, the weather doesn’t seem to deter the hard-core tokers and supporters of legalization from adding their presence and raising their voices to the ever-increasing chorus of citizens calling for change.
Here in Louisiana the state remains a real backwater in terms of the legalization struggle. Although there is currently the greatest agitation for change in memory, commemorated in a two-page spread in the Sunday Times-Picayune titled “Many Say It’s High Time State Eased Marijuana Laws” which points out that marijuana is a Schedule I drug in Louisiana, subjecting convicted users to some of the harshest penalties in the nation: six months and a $500 fine for possession, five years and $2500 for a second offense, and 20 years plus $5000 for subsequent convictions. God knows what they do to someone selling the weed!
In Louisiana a year ago 1,372 Louisiana citizens were serving time for simple marijuana possession, 400 of whom were first and second time offenders serving an average sentence of one-and-a-half years. And, oh yeah, 78% of these convicts were of African American lineage. This year the legislative session in Louisiana begins with 10 marijuana-related bills in contention, of which only one—to cut penalties in half for repeat possessors of marijuana—is given a chance of success, with no advance predicted for the legalization of medical marijuana. How lame is that?
In Michigan the Hash Bash has somehow managed to keep the issue of marijuana legalization alive since the first gathering on the UM Diag in 1972 and through the long desert of the next two static decades until the milestone year of 1996 when California legalized medical marijuana and many other states followed suit, eventually including Michigan in 2008.
It was also in the mid-1990s that the Hash Bash was enhanced by the assumption of the event’s organizational duties by my friend and fellow MMMReport columnist Adam Brook, who was operating a pioneering grow shop in Ann Arbor at the time. Adam ‘s efforts raised the event to a new level and made sure that every attempt of the University of Michigan to stomp out the Hash Bash met with failure.
Limited by the university to one hour of organized activity on the Diag—mostly speeches by a series of eminent marijuana activists and the occasional burst of music or poetry—with the campus police force on hand to enforce the state laws against toking instead of the much more lenient local statutes, the pro forma gathering on the Diag was augmented and lit up by the Monroe Street Fair, where the street is blocked off at both ends of the campus and the participants are allowed to light up and be somebody all day long.
I’ve probably said this before in the pages of MMMReport, but it’s a good thing to review the history of our movement from time to time and reflect upon the course of our long struggle to Free The Weed here in Michigan. Our first significant victory came on December 9, 1971 when the Michigan Legislature reclassified marijuana from a “narcotic” to a “controlled substance” and recalibrated the punishment index to reduce the penalty for possession from a felony with a 10-year maximum sentence to a misdemeanor and for sales of marijuana from a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence with a maximum of life imprisonment to a 4-year prison term.
The new law was scheduled to go into effect on April 1, 1972. But on March 9, 1972 the Michigan Supreme Court decided in People v. Sinclair that marijuana had been improperly and unconstitutionally classified as a narcotic and threw out the old law, leaving the state with no marijuana law whatsoever for the next 22 days. A series of local celebrations ensued with public smoking of marijuana at their core, culminating on the dread April Fool’s Day with the Hash Bash on the UM campus as the ultimate act of defiance of the new laws as they went into effect and marijuana use was once again criminalized.
Only days after the initial Hash Bash the progressive community in Ann Arbor elected two members of the Human Rights Party to the Ann Arbor City Council, where in short order they spearheaded the passage of a law establishing a $5.00 fine for marijuana violations of any dimension. This historic public initiative removed the police from the marijuana equation in Ann Arbor and limited their enforcement role to the issuance of a $5.00 ticket. The cities of Ypsilanti and East Lansing soon followed suit, and Michigan’s pioneering role in changing the marijuana laws in the United States was well established.
Then nothing much happened to advance the cause of legalization for more than two decades until the medical marijuana movement began notching its victories in the mid-1990s and, in Michigan itself, in 2008. Throughout this elongated stretch of time the Hash Bash raised the issue each April and kept the fire alive, becoming more and more pointed after the turn of the century until the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act passed via a citizens’ referendum became law.
Failing to achieve full legalization in Michigan on the statewide ballot, our activists have concentrated on a sort of “domino theory” which has led to the legalization of recreational marijuana use in city after city across the state, from Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti to Detroit, Jackson, Lansing, Grand Rapids, Flint and other municipalities. Many of us feel that statewide legalization is inevitable, but the law enforcement community continues to fight tooth and nail at every step of the way, making every effort available to block the forward motion of the legalization movement and deny the will of the people to secure their freedom from persecution, harassment, and marijuana deprivation.
The criminalization of marijuana smokers is no laughing matter. As Matt Apuzzo recently reported in the New York Times, “Since the late 1970s, the prison population in the United States has ballooned into the world’s largest. About one in every 100 adults is locked up. The nation’s prison population peaked in 2009 at more than 1.6 million inmates. In the federal prison system … half of the 215,000 inmates are serving time for drug crimes.” And, of course once again, “African Americans are disproportionately represented in prison. They make up 13 percent of the nation’s population but 37% of the federal prison population.”
I can’t tell you how many state prisoners there are, but Peter Wagner and Leah Sakala of the Prison Policy Initiative offer these sobering statistics: “The disparate systems of confinement in this country … hold more than 2.4 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 2,259 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails, and 79 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories.”
When my conviction was overturned in 1972 more than 140 Michigan prison inmates were immediately released from confinement. Legalization of marijuana today would result in the release of thousands of unjustly imprisoned drug felons and bring to an end the long and vicious ugliness of the War On Drugs.
At this year’s Hash Bash I’ll be celebrating the recent release from prison of three close friends victimized by the drug authorities: long-time New England activist George K., who just completed five years in federal prison for a marijuana offense; New York activist and organizer Dana Beal, free after two years in Nebraska prisons; and my man Adam Brook, back at the helm of Hash Bash after a two-year Michigan prison sentence. I’ll be there by his side, still trying to bring this shit to an end after 50 years in the trenches. Free The Weed!
© 2014 John Sinclair. All Rights Reserved.