Why marijuana activist John Sinclair deserves a holiday

Jul 9, 2019 at 10:47 am
click to enlarge John Sinclair in Ann Arbor in 1968. - Leni Sinclair
Leni Sinclair
John Sinclair in Ann Arbor in 1968.

It's no stretch to say that John Sinclair has been a major figure in the movement to legalize marijuana in Michigan — at least in the early years. He got arrested and went to jail. The John Sinclair Freedom Rally in 1971 focused national attention on his case and on Ann Arbor, and national figures gathered there in support. An appeal of Sinclair's case led to the Michigan Supreme Court declaring the state marijuana laws unconstitutional, and that resulted in making marijuana legal in the state for a few magical weeks in 1972.

Even though Sinclair wasn't among the leading activists in the most recent successful pushes for legalization, his participation as a speaker at approximately the last 27 Hash Bash rallies and other events has kept him close to the movement.

That's more than good enough for Rick Thompson, a marijuana activist and owner of the Michigan Cannabis Business Development group. Thompson is pushing a proposal among activists to have the first Saturday in April declared John Sinclair Day in Ann Arbor — which is also the day of the annual Hash Bash.

"The goal is to raise awareness of cannabis law history on the one day a year that Ann Arbor cannot deny its link to cannabis law reform," says Thompson. "On the day when we have Hash Bash and Monroe Street Fair, it's easy to forget while we're in the middle of partying that people toiled and fought to achieve this. Having John Sinclair Day might lead some to reflect and the city to memorialize our industry and put a face on it."

Like it or not, Sinclair is the closest thing to a face we have for marijuana legalization in Michigan. Although only marginally related, Sinclair has the added fame of being a well-known poet, political activist, and music impresario for his work with rock band the MC5. And while he has historically carried a lot of bluster in his game, he seems genuinely taken aback by the prospect of this kind of public honor.

A concerned "Oh dear" came out of his mouth when the subject came up during a phone call. Then he caught his stride. "I'm proud. I like it," he says. "I'm not going to complain. I like being linked to the Hash Bash, especially while I'm still alive."

Sinclair is inexorably linked to the Hash Bash, but it wouldn't hurt for Ann Arbor to make it official. The first Hash Bash in 1972 was a reaction to the new marijuana law that replaced the old one that had been declared unconstitutional — and freed Sinclair from prison. Sinclair and friends threw the bash as a protest that marijuana was newly illegal, and to publicly flip the bird at the government. Some 47 years later, one might say the idea has caught on. Not only has it caught on, the Monroe Street Fair, the Hash Bash Cannabis Cup, educational forums, and evening parties have made the weekend a premier cannabis-oriented destination.

That said, one might argue that there are other days that might make a good John Sinclair Day. Maybe March 9, the day the state court declared the marijuana laws unconstitutional. Or maybe Dec. 10, the date of the freedom rally that focused attention when the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Bobby Seale, John Lennon, and Yoko Ono focused the attention of the nation on Sinclair's imprisonment and on Ann Arbor.

Maybe it should be in the late summer when the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival takes place. For a couple of years, Sinclair helped bring the likes of Ray Charles, Miles Davis, Count Basie, and numerous other luminaries to town, and Sinclair played the festival last year.

Making those arguments underscores that fact that there is more than one good reason to declare a John Sinclair Day. Making it the first Saturday in April adds to the critical mass of events over the weekend and the possibility of differently themed events to make the first weekend in April a bigger marijuana holiday.

Thompson says that Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, has given his personal support to the plan and that he expects to get a formal endorsement form NORML. That means that national activists are aware of Sinclair and supportive of honoring him. All it really takes is for the Ann Arbor City Council to make the declaration. Surely there are members of that governing board who would support it. Council members have been regulars among the Hash Bash speakers for many years.

It will also take some folks in Ann Arbor to get busy to make it happen. Thompson doesn't live there. Marijuana legalization has been a statewide movement, but the Ann Arbor City Council's job is to respond to the folks in Ann Arbor. Chuck Ream lives there and he's on board.

"I would like to see a John Sinclair day," says Ream. "He was a true self-starter, a rare thing, brave enough to face down the whole system to declare what was right and true."

The first thing that comes to mind for a John Sinclair Day activity would be to get high. That's what Sinclair is known for. Some of the most famous images of him depict a man with a joint held to his lips. Since that's what they're already doing during Hash Bash, it hardly seems special. Sinclair is also a well-known poet, music impresario and political activist. It seems activities could be built around those themes.

So the first step is to get Ann Arbor folks to approach their council. Hey — actually, Sinclair worked there as an aide to a council member back in the 1970s.

"Councils routinely do this to celebrate important days in their history, whether it's Founder's Day or Pioneers Day," says Thompson. "We're just asking them to celebrate that in a different way. ... I'm not aware of anywhere else that has designated a day to honor a cannabis activist. It certainly would be the first one here in Michigan."

And that would put the cap on the fact that Ann Arbor is our state's marijuana capital.

Sinclair lives in Detroit now in the old Cass Corridor on a less-developed edge of Midtown. Like a lot of older people who used marijuana when all they had was a joint and a bong, this new world of marijuana with big-pocketed investors and dabbing and state licenses and marketing teams is a far cry from what they thought or even imagined could be.

"I'm the opposite of what they're trying to do now," says Sinclair. "I like to remind them of where this shit came from."

That's about as right as rain in the garden during a heat wave. Everything changes and everything reveals a new side over time. In all that, there's nothing wrong with remembering the old heads and what they had to go through for us to be where we are now.

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