Hi everybody, welcome to Opening day, the Hash Bash, 4/20 and the other wonders of April in Michigan when we celebrate the herb and renew our intentions to Free The Weed once and for all. We’re still waiting for the State of Michigan to certify the signatures submitted by MILegalize and its allies and admit that our proposition is on the ballot for November, and we fully expect the citizens’ initiative to pass with votes in excess of 60% of the voting public.
Looking forward to the 47th occurrence of the Hash Bash on the first Saturday in April, first I must chastise the committee of students, dispensary owners and lawyers in Ann Arbor who decided to refuse my friend and comrade Adam Brook his rightful opportunity to speak on the Diag on April 7. No one is more responsible for the continued success and longevity of the Hash Bash than Adam Brook, and it’s a shame that he has been removed from the official Hash Bash that he kept alive for more than 20 years until he was sent to prison and others took over.
And speaking of Hash Bash, a whole lotta people don’t know that we put on the first one on April Fool’s Day in 1972 to inform the public and the State of Michigan that we would be continuing to smoke marijuana publicly whether or not there was a law against it and would not stop until we could Free The Weed forever.
Recently an Ann Arbor journalist named Ryan Huey published an account in the Lansing State Journal(February 11, 2018) that detailed the early days of the struggle for marijuana legalization in Michigan. This fine story resulted from a series of interviews between Ryan and myself, and I’d like to share the story up to the inception of the Hash Bash with you here in my column, thanks to Ryan’s cooperation and permission.
In the 1950s, Michigan implemented some of the harshest penalties for marijuana in the country. Legislators worried publicly that “dope peddlers” and “bad associates”—which their listeners would have understood as code for black and working class—were manipulating white youth to smoke marijuana.
A 1952 bill made the punishment for narcotics possession anything between probation and 10 years in prison, and the law treated marijuana as a narcotic. A second offense could mean 20 years behind bars. A conviction for selling carried a mandatory minimum of 20 years inprison with no parole.
By 1956, the Detroit Narcotics Bureau estimated that 89% of people arrested for narcotics were black, although they were only 20% of the city’s population. The conviction rate was a staggering 90%.
White and college-educated John Sinclair was first arrested for “sales and possession” of marijuana in October of 1964, he got a slap on the wrist. The judge dropped the sales charge, put him on two years’ probation and fined him $250.
While on probation, Sinclair started a Detroit chapter of LEMAR (Legalize Marijuana), the first group dedicated to legalization in the U.S. John Sinclair and his companion (later his first wife), Magdalene “Leni” Arndt, had recently founded a beatnik artist collective called the Detroit Artists Workshop that became a home base for artists, musicians,, activists, and entrepreneurs.
The Detroit Police Department (DPD) assigned an undercover agent to infiltrate the collective to keep tabs on Sinclair and
the anti-Vietnam War activists who lived in the same building, which led to Sinclair’s second arrest. He pleaded guilty to marijuana possession and, this time, was sentenced to six months in the Detroit House of Correction.
Detroit’s Red Squad, a special police unit of the DPD that investigated suspected communists, started compiling a detailed file on Sinclair for “possible narcotics and subversive activity.”
Sinclair’s third arrest came on January 24, 1967 under the auspices of a drug raid targeting narcotics traffic near Wayne State University’s campus. A month prior, he had given two joints to undercover police officers who had volunteered to work at the Artists Workshop in order to build a case against Sinclair.
John challenged the constitutionality of the state marijuana laws on a pre-trial basis all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court, but his case was remanded for trial in July 1969 and he was convicted in a jury trial of possession of two marijuana cigarettes.
Judge Robert J. Columbo of Detroit Recorders Court sentenced John Sinclair to 9-1/2 to 10 years in prison. He also denied bond, which would have allowed Sinclair to stay out of prison during the appeal process, a move usually reserved for the most dangerous offenders.
“The law means nothing to him and to his ilk,” Colombo said.
Sinclair’s wife Leni, his brother David and their comrades in the White Panther Party (later the Rainbow Peoples Party) responded with the Free John Sinclair campaign and organized demonstrations, petition drives and hundreds of benefit concerts and rallies over the next 2-1/2 years, culminating in the John Sinclair Freedom Rally at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor that drew 15,000 to hear John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Stevie Wonder, Phil Ochs, Black Panther Party Chairman Bobby Seale and fellow musicians and activists demand “Free John Now!”
Three days later, John was free.
His case convinced the Michigan Supreme Court that marijuana and heroin were not equally dangerous, though state law had treated them that way, misclassifying cannabis as a narcotic and imposing long prison sentences for possession and sales. The Court released Sinclair from prison and, three months later, on March 9, 1972, declared the state’s marijuana laws unconstitutional.
There were no new marijuana laws in place, and so, in March of 1972, marijuana was effectively legalized in Michigan for about three weeks. To celebrate, several Ann Arborites half-jokingly advertised a “hash festival” to take place on the University of Michigan’s Diag the day the new marijuana law was to go into effect—April Fool’s Day.
Hundreds of people showed up on the snowy Saturday to puff joints in public, the origin of what would become Hash Bash. In fact, the name was dreamed up by Rainbow Peoples Party artist Walden Simper, who applied the name to the poster she was creating for the April 1 event.
No one was arrested. A few days later, the Supreme Court ordered the release of 128 people in Michigan prisons for marijuana offenses.
In the spring of 1972 the Rainbow Peoples Party joined with other progressive sectors of the Ann Arbor community to form the local chapter of the Human Rights Party, a left-wing electoral party headed by former Lt. Gov. Zoltan Ferenczy.
Following a massive voter registration movement spearheaded by the Rainbow Peoples Party to enroll 18-to-21-year-olds previously denied the right to vote, the HRP elected two members to the Ann Arbor City Council who immediately introduced a city ordinance that would downgrade possession, use and sale of marijuana to a $5 civil infraction within Ann Arbor.
The ordinance passed, making Ann Arbor the first city in the United States to implement a “traffic-ticket” marijuana ordinance and earning its nickname as “The Dope Capital of the Midwest.” East Lansing and Ypsilanti soon adopted similar ordinances.
From that time virtually nothing changed in the state’s marijuana legal system until the citizens passed the Medical Marijuana Act in 2008. The other thing that has never changed is our cry: Free The Weed! Do It Now!
March 25, 2018
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