Tom Crosslin was a lot of things. A brawler with a mean streak, a charmer, a bully, a civic do-gooder, a pothead, a don't-tread-on-me rebel, a dreamer and a doer. He was Mr. Party and Mr. Charity and a hustler who envisioned Rainbow Farm, the campground and concert venue he established in western Michigan, as a "company town" for hemp festivals and endless festivities, not to mention a base for pushing a referendum to change state marijuana laws.
Crosslin and his lover, Rollie Rohm, were on a fault line in American culture. On one side were the folks who gravitated to Rainbow Farm, from stoners and drifters to pot activists to straight-arrow libertarians to the Michigan Militia. On the other side was the anti-reefer madness that characterizes the war on drugs in the decades since President Richard Nixon launched it.
And in Burning Rainbow Farm: How a Stoner Utopia Went Up in Smoke (Bloomsbury, $24.95, 340 pp.), L.A. journalist Dean Kuipers explores the 2001 tragedy that ensued when a zealous county prosecutor brought the full weight of Michigan's drug forfeiture laws against Crosslin and Rohm's dream. The pair torched much of the farm rather than see it seized. Then, armed and outfitted in camo, they holed up under siege and died days later in separate confrontations with FBI and State Police snipers. (Details of those shootings are in dispute, and Rohm's death is the focus of a civil suit yet to be resolved.)
Having grown up there, Kuipers knows well the western Michigan that produced Crosslin, Rohm and their antagonists. His sympathies are clear — he's promoting the book in conjunction with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and he acknowledges the grant assistance of the Marijuana Policy Project in completing it — but in Burning Rainbow Farm, he's written a compelling book that deserves consideration from all sides of the drug debate. To that end, we present excerpts from his opening chapter, and his second chapter in its entirety. —W. Kim Heron, editor
CHAPTER ONE: August 31, 2001
And there are no descending circles and only one flame in Hell. But it is a beauty.
—Robert Penn Warren
I can't believe they haven't killed you boys already.
—Merle Haggard, first time meeting Tom Crosslin and Rollie Rohm on Rainbow Farm, July 2000
Rainbow Farm campground was empty on the Friday morning Tom Crosslin burned the place to the ground. Two teenage lovers named Omar Alham and Vanessa Hunckler had been the last to leave, taking down their tent two days earlier, but that red morning they were flying toward it again, fishtailing down the dirt road, dust billowing in a monster ecru cloud behind. Tom hadn't really told them why they had to leave, he'd said only "stuff's happening," but they'd taken that as enough of a statement from a place that had been a living statement for years. Omar had been crashing at the farm on and off since the fourth of July, along with a lot of other people, and Nessa — she shortened it to Nessa — had just returned to it in a kind of pilgrimage. Tom's eviction had been direct, but in his eyes they saw a glimmer of the generosity and hope that had caused people to gather on his property for years, and that would bring them back one more time. They knew Tom and Rollie were in some kind of trouble. So Omar's big car bounced through the swamp bottoms of southwestern Michigan at eighty miles per hour while Nessa clung to the door. The baby blue 1987 Mercury Grand Marquis barely hit its top range as Omar took the back way to the farm, Fox to Quaker to Kirk Lake Road, where there were never any cops. Orange caution tape wrapped around the car sizzled and fried at speed, and the front bumper rattled where it hung by duct tape. The campers at Rainbow Farm had called the car the Hempulance because Omar took the county roads like he was operating an emergency vehicle.
He drove fast as a point of pride, and the Hempulance carried the weed, always arriving just in time with the antidote to ordinary blues.
Many were saved, and many believed the cannabis plant could save the world. But now it seemed like it was Rainbow Farm that needed saving.
On any other Labor Day weekend, as many as five thousand people would have been pouring through the Rainbow Farm gates for Roach Roast, the annual fall campout where Tommy Chong or Merle Haggard or Big Brother and the Holding Company would play on the big stage and the best-known hemp advocates in the country would preach the legalization of marijuana. It had been that way since 1995, when Tom Crosslin and his lover Rollie Rohm had begun hosting festivals there.
Omar and Nessa raced to aid their friends. They weren't too certain of the details, but they knew Tom and Rollie had been busted in May for growing some pot, and they were in a big feud with the county prosecutor.
The Memorial Day festival had been canceled but the Labor Day blowout had still been a go. It had been a go all summer; it had been a go until a few days earlier, when suddenly Tom shut the gates and started talking about how he and Rollie were going to be heroes.
It was still early when Omar and Nessa spun through the gate. They had waited at the home of Omar's mom in Cassopolis as long as they could, but their curiosity was powerful and it was only eight a.m. when the car slid to a stop in front of the campground store in a spray of dust and gravel.
Tom was sitting on a picnic table in front of the farm's coffee shop, under a wooden sign that read The Joint, burning a fattie and drinking coffee with Rollie in the shade of the building's long porch. This was the morning ritual, and the men shared the ease of having been together for eleven years. But both were also dressed in newish camouflage fatigue shirts and pants, still a little cardboard-stiff, and new boots, and the look didn't suit them. Tom was forty-six and normally wore jeans, running shoes and a T-shirt with a windbreaker. Sometimes he'd choose a tie-dye when Rainbow Farm festivals were on. Longhaired, skinny Rollie was younger than Tom, only twenty-eight, and still looked like a kid. He was partial to T-shirts and Levis and baggie genie pants.
Tom didn't smile. The summer had run him down. His weight had dropped on his medium frame from about 230 to 210 or so, but his face was still round. His thin brown hair was clean and lay flat on his skull, and his pale blue eyes had a friendly droop at the corners. Tom was typically a fast talker, a charismatic man, but he was quiet now. He was hungover. Rollie seemed similarly preoccupied.
Jimmy Lee "Jimbo" Collett sat with them, too. A powerfully built man of forty, he worked at the farm and lived some of the time in a travel trailer on the back side of the big camp store. He shaved his head to accentuate his muscular bulk and had a little black goatee, and was also wearing camo. Omar and Nessa were his friends, and in a moment of quiet inspiration he'd given the Hempulance its name.
"They knew we were coming back that morning," Vanessa told me later. The night before, the two had been at the farm, partying with Tom and Rollie and a couple other people, and Tom had promised Omar he could have two cans of Day-Glo paint, pink and green, that had been used to paint the farm's 1932 Farmall tractor. The psychedelic tractor had become an icon, a symbol of Rainbow Farm, especially after farmhand Travis Hopkins had appeared that summer on the cover of the regional paper, the South Bend Tribune, perched atop the tractor giving a defiant, raised-fist salute.
"We had no idea what they were gonna do," Nessa said. "We didn't even know that they was supposed to be going to court that day. But there was something in the air."
Even then, the two eighteen-year-olds wondered why anything had to change. The place looked the same. From the gravel parking lot where they stood talking, the building that held The Joint and the big camp store and the shower rooms stretched away to the north. To the west, gravel paths and two-track farm roads led back through acres of grass campsites to the ten-acre festival field, a kind of natural bowl where a covered wooden stage poked off the top of a hill. To the south, directly across the parking lot, was a large, comfortable two-story farmhouse where Tom and Rollie lived. Sided in light green and trimmed in cream with a gray-green roof, the house grabbed mention as having been beautifully redone. Behind it to the southwest was a seven-acre marsh, part of which was dug out as a pond.
Chickens were burring low in the henhouse in the backyard, and red-winged blackbirds set up their electric whirring on the pond. Omar and Vanessa swatted at early morning deerflies. The place smelled and sounded right, but something dark had opened up in its heart, a presence that made the two teenagers nervous. They didn't understand who was coming to take this all away, but Tom kept saying, "All they're gonna get is ashes."
For a couple days they had watched Tom turn festival guests away from the campground, saying, "The farm is over," and "They've messed with us too long, and we just can't do it anymore. You guys are gonna have to go home." The people who'd showed up were travelers and Rainbow Family crusties, union workers, libertarian fomenters and conspiracy theorists, blue-collar weekenders, academics and spontaneous dancers, all looking for space and amplified music. They came to remote Cass County, Michigan, from just across the state line in Elkhart, Indiana, and as far away as Oregon, Oklahoma, Florida and Quebec. Almost everyone who came to the festivals was looking to smoke grass and promote its legalization. But this time they had to just burn one and split. Tom let them take a free T-shirt or a pack of Rainbow Farm rolling papers or any sodas that were left in the store, then he closed the gate behind them.
Nikki Lester, who managed the camp store, had stopped by the day before and left with a "bad feeling." One of Tom's best friends from the village of Vandalia, Dwight Vowell Sr., had been there that same day with a truck, and Tom had told him to take everything of any value out of the store — groceries and camping supplies and the espresso machine and the hot case for the nacho cheese dip, plus the glass cases that held the extensive head shop and all the Tommy Chong bongs, pipes, urine test kits and Rainbow Farm lighters and Frisbees that were left. Travis Hopkins said he knew that "shit was coming down." The farm's former manager Doug Leinbach, who had known Tom for thirty years and over that span had been his most trusted friend, was there on Wednesday afternoon and said Tom wasn't acting normal and seemed "desperate." "Just like if you back a wild animal up into a corner, you're going to see them react differently than when they're free to roam about the land that they're used to."
Tom thrived on conflict and brinksmanship, so no one knew for sure where any of this was leading. The state was going to prosecute him and Rollie — and Rollie's twelve-year-old son, Robert, who had grown up on Rainbow Farm, had been put in foster care. Tom had lots of lawyers and had survived many legal battles on his properties in the past. He'd worked for eight years outfitting Rainbow Farm with stages, a store, equipment and staff. He'd spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, and now he'd stripped it all away in the space of a week.
Omar noticed the flags on the flagpole had changed since the night before. There had always been an American flag, a rainbow flag that symbolized gay unity and a small white flag bearing a red cross to recognize medical marijuana. Now the American flag flew upside down, a universal symbol of distress.
Omar and Nessa got the paint, but stayed less than fifteen minutes.
"Tom wouldn't let us stay," Omar said. "They were puffing a bowl, and I was like, 'Hey, I want to stay and smoke one more bowl.' He was like, 'No, you can't. You gotta go.'"
"'But,' Tom said, 'watch the news tonight,'" added Nessa.
They were all crying, except for Rollie, who wasn't much one for tears.
"Tom didn't say what he was gonna do," added Omar. "They kept saying they were gonna be heroes. Tom didn't say it first. Jimbo was crazy, I bet he said it first. Rollie wasn't saying a lot besides, 'It's time for this to end.'"
Omar honked and spun the tires of the Hempulance as he gunned the car out of the gate. He looked in his rearview mirror. "They were standing there and Tom gave me a Nixon, you know what I mean? Two victory signs; two peace signs."
Heavy rains in August had broken a three-month drought. That summer in the Michiana area, the borderlands between southwest Michigan and northern Indiana, had been one of irrigating struggling crops and keeping cool while a breeze heated to ninety degrees Farenheit would lift an odor of melted asphalt and pig shit into a kind of slow scirocco. It was lake effect in reverse: Chicago, only two hours to the west, was having its second-wettest August since 1895, but Cass County, Michigan, was dry.
The soil temperature in southwest Michigan was sixty-nine degrees. The fruit agent in neighboring Berrien County reported that the drought conditions in June and July accounted for some poor size in the peach crop, but generally fruit size was good. The blueberry crop was about over and McIntosh apples would begin picking September 2.
Hog prices, a number used to measure the overall economic health of Cass County, were up 10 percent over the previous year. People liked to say that there were more hogs than people in the county, and they must have liked to say that a lot because they were saying it all the time.
Tom Crosslin was one of the people who would say those things. He embraced the country life. He had raised hogs and turkeys and cows and even painted a cartoony pig on his mailbox. He had trucked extra produce from his big gardens to soup kitchens. Like a farmer, he was in the habit of rising at dawn, always the first one up, making strong coffee to go with a little green bud from the Tupperware dish they kept in the kitchen. Most of the stash was Mexican that summer; he and Rollie had to cut back. They couldn't afford the hydroponic smoke they called "lawyer bud" anymore unless a friend gave them some, which was the only charity Tom Crosslin would abide. He'd caffeinate and marinate, then walk the two-track that circled his 54-acre farm with his dog, a gentle rottweiler named Thai Stick, making notes on improvements.
Building improvements were his money business. During the summer of 2001, he still owned seven of the many properties he'd purchased in the area, most of them in the nearby village of Vandalia and thirty miles away in Elkhart. Over the years, there had been so many properties, even his bookkeeper lost count, but one court survey indicated that at one point he'd owned at least fifty-two and he may have owned as many as eighty — rental units, single-family houses, commercial spaces — a good number of which he'd sold off in order to build Rainbow Farm.
Around noon that Friday, he scuffed through the wet grass with Thai Stick, his pockets filled with matches and lighters. He was a man who lived large, a man with a thousand friends, and a man who knew the power of symbolism and large gestures. Using that power had come to matter more than anything.
He stopped at a newish, double-wide modular building set on cinder blocks beside a line of walnut and cherry trees. This was the farm's production office, where entertainment coordinator Derrik DeCraene had kept sound equipment and hour upon hour of audiotape — all the speakers, all the bands, the whole recent history of a place that had become the center of the marijuana movement in Michigan.
Far off, a dog barked on Black Street and Thai Stick turned her head.
Over the cornfields to the west, a black cloud of starlings formed and reformed, jerking through the air. The morning heat lifted the hovering insects, a kind of suspended tonnage in mosquitoes, deerflies, gnats and no-see-ums waiting to add their chitins to the earth.
Tom opened the door to the production office. It was packed with bales of dry straw. He nudged the dog out of the way and ignited the golden hay. Once it caught, it went up with a sickening thud, like a body hitting a wood floor. As the flames licked out the windows and consumed the building, he calmed the dog and walked toward the pump house in the field. That would be the next to go.
It is indicative of how the situation at Rainbow Farm had decayed that when Buggy Brown saw the smoke from the fire, he did not call the fire department. He had originally moved to Vandalia to be part of the farm's activism, and in the last few days he had been afraid of something like this. He also made a point of not taking the roads when he drove over there that morning, because he knew someone coming down Pemberton Road might get shot. Instead, he took the dirt lanes between cornfields and entered through a farm gate off the back of the property.
Buggy and his co-worker Richard Deans were milking cows at the farm of Ann File, the matriarch of a prominent local family whose several connected hog farms butted up against Rainbow Farm to the southwest.
Neither Buggy nor Richard were employees at Rainbow Farm, but the venue's pro-pot campaign was one of the reasons both of them worked nearby. Buggy was thirty-four and his girlfriend was Nikki Lester, who worked in the camp store. Richard, whose nickname was Rainbow Richie, was a gay teenager, and he considered Tom and Rollie to be role models.
"When I got back there, the only thing I saw was Rollie at the house," said Buggy. Rollie told Buggy that Tom was "unavailable." Rollie was also carrying a new Ruger mini-14 assault rifle with a 30-round clip full of .223 ammunition. "At that point, it was the band VIP trailer that was on fire, and I went up to Rollie. And he said 'It was time,' and that I needed to leave. Rollie was always a mellow individual. And his temperament and personality did not change at all, anytime, during any of this. I asked him if we had time for one more bowl. I went and got my bowl and we shared that a little bit, and I gave him a hug and I left. I went back out the back way."
Rainbow Richie was scared. When Buggy came to get the pipe, he told Richie not to get out of the van, and that suited Richie just fine. He wanted to tell Rollie he loved him, but he didn't know what was going on. As a gay kid who felt misunderstood at home, he was afraid to lose the two men who made him feel safe and accepted.
Seeing Rollie with a gun confirmed Buggy's fears. Rollie was slight and emotionally fragile, not given to a lot of dialogue. He was also not in the habit of carrying guns around the farm; in fact, weapons had always been forbidden there. But he had one then, a strange new accessory in a summer that had seen his genial, go-along demeanor turn profoundly sad and stoic.
Buggy had only lived in the area for about fifteen months, but during that time the farm had become the center of his life as it had for hundreds of people in the community, farmers and workers from the Elkhart trailer plants, teenagers from Cassopolis and Marcellus and Dowagiac, passersthrough and eco-freaks and political junkies and confused kids who didn't know what they were, just that they needed relief from life in Cass County. It was a private farm but a public refuge, with an espresso machine, two pool tables, a jukebox and what Tom liked to call "the best coin laundry in the county." Other than a local bar, there was not another place to hang out in the area. The farm was a licensed campground, so anyone who cared to could grab a patch of grass and pitch a tent.
With its nationally advertised hemp festivals and voter registration drives, Rainbow Farm had also become the center for cannabis activism in the state of Michigan. The farm and its employees were founding sponsors of the Personal Responsibility Amendment, an initiative that was close to having enough signatures to get on the ballot in 2002 and behind which the movement to legalize pot in Michigan had surged to new prominence.
This was something Buggy believed in, and he didn't want to see all that work fouled up with guns. When he got back to the Files', Buggy called sheriff Joe Underwood, a big, even-tempered African American man widely respected in the community. They had never talked before.
Buggy told the sheriff not to send anyone out to Rainbow Farm, that the fire would burn itself out safely. He told him the men were armed.
Buggy kept this phone call a secret for many months, for fear that others in the community would think him a traitor. But others had made similar phone calls.
Scott Teter was the prosecuting attorney for Cass County. At 1:30 p.m. on August 31, Grover Thomas Crosslin and Roland Eugene Rohm were due in county court for a hearing with Teter where it would be decided whether or not they'd have their bail bonds revoked on the drug charges from their May bust. They were scheduled to meet with their lawyer at 12:30. They'd never turn up.
Buggy explained, "On my way out, my mind started thinking: If they were taking a stand, if the fire department or law enforcement were to go back there and unintentionally cause a conflict — I was afraid of bloodshed. The farm had done so much for the marijuana movement. But the stand they were making was personal — having been railroaded by Teter. The two issues are the same, but separate."
CHAPTER TWO: The Marijuana Capital of America
SONNY: [patting down FBI man] You'd like to kill me. Betcha would.
SHELDON: I wouldn't like to kill you. I will if I have to.
SONNY: It's your job, right? You know, the guy who kills me, I hope he does it 'cause he hates my guts. Not 'cause it's his job.
—Al Pacino and James Broderick in Dog Day Afternoon
The shootings in Vandalia smelled funny the moment I read about them on the cover of the Kalamazoo Gazette. The September 9, 2001, Sunday subscription edition arrived at my house in California, and there was the cover photo of Rollie's stepdad, John Livermore, walking past the burned shell of Rollie's Volkswagen under the headline quote: "It Just Doesn't Make Sense."
I'd never heard of Rainbow Farm before that day. I'd grown up just twenty-five miles north of there, in an area surrounded by vineyards outside the rural village of Mattawan, but left Michigan just before the farm was established. Still, something about the information in the piece didn't add up. Here were two gay guys, rich by local standards, real estate minimagnates, philanthropists, Republicans, pillars of the community even, and they had figured their only recourse was an armed standoff with police? Over weed? And they weren't dealers? Even more bizarre, the FBI and the Michigan State Police had taken them off with snipers hidden in the trees.
Even the cant of the piece was weird: The Gazette is hardly a liberal paper anymore — it endorsed Bush both in 2000 and 2004, reflecting the increasingly Christian conservative electorate in the area — and yet the lead quote in reporter Barb Walters's story came from a retired postmaster of Cassopolis, a Korean War vet, saying, "The authorities overreacted. I think they could have handled it more diplomatically. The case was not that serious." The piece expressed a conservative anger, captured in quotes from Livermore, a self-proclaimed religious conservative.
When it was brought up that Tom and Rollie had grown marijuana in their basement, Livermore was quoted as saying, "But do you shoot somebody for that?"
No, actually, you don't. Even from 2,000 miles away it stunk.
The Mattawan, Michigan, I grew up in was the marijuana capital of America. Not because my friends and neighbors there were growing that much pot in 1970s and '80s. It's not like the Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky or Mendocino County, California, where folks grow so much dope they post signs pleading with growers not to shoot at the crop dusters. It was just a place where people smoked a lot of weed, and the conservative position was that it wasn't the government's business if you did. Now, evidently, little Vandalia, Michigan, population 429, had taken the crown.
And the cops still don't give a damn — not about pot smokers. At least, that's what they say, even at this advanced stage of the War on Drugs.
When I talked to Captain Charles Bush, the avuncular division commander of the Michigan State Police Criminal Investigation Division out of Lansing, part of whose job it is to reduce the supply of pot in Michigan, he told me: "In all my years in the state police, I can honestly say I don't know of a single case where we busted someone, and they went to jail, for simple possession." He went on, eyes twinkling over his gray mustache, "They're pleading down to possession. It would have to be for something more."
So I got on the phone to Gazette reporter Barb Walters and she told me, yeah, there was more to the story. "And if the editors hadn't pulled me away to deal with all this 9/11 stuff, I'd still be down there," she said.
By the time that Gazette had reached L.A., there was nobody on the Rainbow Farm story anymore. Tons of TV had been out there — CNN, Fox, and locals led by WNDU-TV out of South Bend—and the papers and wire services, too — Detroit News, Associated Press. Rolling Stone even had a guy on it. But two days after that Sunday edition had come out was September 11, 2001, the day Saudi terrorists crashed commercial airliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania.
It was, in fact, the day of Rollie Rohm's funeral.
September 11 flipped the script on Tom Crosslin. In the space of one day, his superpatriotic stance, which he saw as fulfilling the charge of the Constitution to defend liberty from the tyranny of bureaucrats, was splashed with the fear of terrorism. At that point, it meant something different to be a rural guy with a gun who gets killed by FBI snipers. Almost every publication dropped the story. All except for the South Bend Tribune and the Elkhart Truth.
But Rainbow Farm's story didn't have anything to do with terrorism — it was a forfeiture case, and an ugly one. Abuse of the forfeiture statute was so rampant in the mid-1990s that it was almost inevitable that sooner or later some regular guys like Tom and Rollie would resist giving up their property. But their protest had descended into violence.
Which might explain why NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, was e-mailing news blasts about Rainbow Farm, but neither NORML's head, Keith Stroup, nor anyone from other big drug advocacy groups like the Drug Policy Alliance or the Marijuana Policy Project were winging into Vandalia to be on TV.
I continued to try to get a read on the story and it continued to be muddied. The community seemed to support Tom and Rollie. Protestors had mobbed the place even while the standoff was going on. The Tribune's big Sunday headline read: "More Questions Than Answers At Rainbow Farm." One of AP's wire stories led with: "Standoff Duo Recalled as Peace Loving." A Detroit Free Press header read: "To Them, There Was No Out." Their Hemp Aid 2001 pot fair was still listed in the Tribune's summer festival guide.
They didn't sound like two guys who should get shot to death. I grew up in the Michigan woods; out there, you had to bother a lot of people to earn yourself a police sniper's bullet. But Tom and Rollie's farm was isolated; they hadn't bothered anyone—and even people who didn't care for Rainbow Farm said so. Yet there it was in the paper: Two of the state's best-known, peace-preaching potheads shot to death at their wannabe Woodstock. It rang with a kind of moral dissonance. It is one of the hallmarks of our larger identity as Americans that an abuse of power precipitates a crisis of faith. Such a crisis threatened to seize Cass County. This self-doubt became corrosive — what Allen St. Pierre from NORML accurately described as "rust," a slow decay of trust rather than a swift criminal demolition, an outward evidence of loss of integrity.
It was easy to follow the rust: It spiraled up like a funnel cloud of rumors looking for a place to touch down. One of those rumors, for instance, held that Tom and Rollie had been big-time weed dealers, using their sizable hidden profits to hire big names like Tommy Chong and to fuel Tom's penchant for impulse buys like his Rolls Royce or his Jaguar.
Then there was the story that they had a ".50 caliber machine gun" and had the farm "booby-trapped," or had a militia that would come to their aid if summoned. Folks heard there were tunnels from the farm to the Bonine Mansion about four miles away on M-60, a stately 1840s manor house that Tom also owned. Or that amid the gay porn found in the house was evidence of a sex-death scheme. Or that Brandon Peoples, an eighteen-year-old neighbor kid, had been pressured by the FBI to walk the farm owner into a crossfire.
But there was no touching down, because none of this speculation turned out to be true. When the Washington Post picked up the story in January, Peter Carlson's piece ran with the headers: "Reefer Madness; Marijuana Advocates Tom Crosslin and Rollie Rohm Sensed the Government Was Out To Get Them. And Then They Were Dead. Was Rainbow Farm Another Waco?"
Carlson decided that it really wasn't another Waco, and I did, too. The name Waco popped up in the local papers for months, but it just didn't track. Something else was going on.
What had really happened was that rural conservatives had begun speaking out against the War on Drugs, and two of the loudest had gotten themselves killed. The attitudes hadn't changed much since I'd lived there, but the consequences of the drug war — the forfeiture statutes, the mandatory minimum sentences, the intrusion — had escalated to the point where the old social contracts were breaking down. This war had drawn out the silent rural dwellers who were allergic to politics and reporters and hubbub. The shootings were the result of an uprising of the intensely private people of rural Michigan and Indiana, and their awkward, slightly embarrassed first foray into public activism.
As I began to interview them, it became clear that something had changed in the greasy blue-collar boonies that were central to my own identity. Plain old cannabis had transcended its middle-finger status to become an organizing principle for a real, honest-to-god movement that blurred all political and even religious lines. Thousands of people against the drug war had gathered at Rainbow Farm — Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Greens, New Agers, Buddhists, born-agains, Militiamen, UFO enthusiasts, local mayors, police officers, people who called themselves things like The Wood Bitches and Buzz Daily and Cockroach — the vast majority of them responsible adults with children and businesses and churches. Just as the Vietnam War became a central focus for reform movements of the 1960s and '70s, from civil rights to drugs to the new left to radical feminism, the hemp festivals at Rainbow Farm had become a catch-all for discontent. The partiers there were upset about the decay of privacy and property rights and about urine testing in the factories of Elkhart. A lot of them were people with medical conditions like glaucoma and multiple sclerosis and epilepsy who felt they had to fight the pharmaceutical companies to get cannabis restored to them as medicine. They were upset that industrial hemp was illegal even though you couldn't get high off it and it was a potential solution to a raft of environmental troubles. They were against corporate globalism.
They were incensed that their government was treating them like infants. Somehow, in the nonsensical and false climate of red-vs.-blue politics, the potent symbol of all their disparate anger was weed.
And Rainbow Farm was minuscule compared to what was going on elsewhere. Every summer the Seattle Hemp Fest drew up to 150,000 people. Another 100,000 in Boston. And tens of thousands in Washington, D.C. There were scores of these "hempenings" across the country every year. Was anyone in Washington listening?
Tom Crosslin wasn't their hero. His was only the worst-case scenario that proved the drug war was out of control. This was the story of two activists who pushed the limits of the First Amendment, who tried to legalize pot through a ballot initiative and ended up losing their rights, all their money, their land, their kid and, finally, their lives. Right there in the marijuana capital of America.
The people left behind were scared. In one of my first interviews, a woman who had a lot of experience with Cass County's foster care system explained how the county could now legally take children from loving homes where the parents smoked weed. I told her I could relate to this fear, since I had an infant son. Unprompted, she immediately started telling me what do when Child Protective Services came to my door. I held up my hands, explaining that marijuana really wasn't my bag. "That doesn't matter," she said. "You're part of this now."
Dean Kuipers will appear 7-8 p.m., June 22, at Aunt Agatha's True Crime Bookstore (213 S. Fourth Ave., Ann Arbor; 734-769-1114); 7:30-8:30 p.m., June 23, at Schuler Books and Music (2820 Towne Center Blvd., Eastwood Shopping Center, Lansing; 517-316-7495); and 8:30-9:30 p.m., June 23, at Magdalena's Tea House (2006 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing; 517-487-1822) when sale proceeds go to MI NORML.
Dean Kuipers is the deputy editor of Los Angeles CityBeat and the author of I Am a Bullet and Ray Gun Out of Control. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, the Los Angeles Times and Playboy. A native of Michigan, he now lives in Los Angeles.