How Hippies Turned A College Town Into 'The Dope Capital Of The Midwest'

John Sinclair in 1968. Photo by Leni Sinclair.The series of events that would lead to the radical reform of Michigan’s cannabis laws, and the transformation of a college town into the most 420-friendly place in the country, began with two hippies, Louis and Peg, who turned out not to be hippies at all.For four months starting in the fall of 1966, the pair had befriended members of the Trans-Love Energies collective, located at the Detroit Artists’ Workshop near Wayne State University. The building was a center of left-wing activism and agitational propaganda in the Motor City—home of the Fifth Estate newspaper, the local office of the Committee to End the War in Vietnam, and the future rehearsal space for revolutionary rock band the MC5. On January 24, 1967, police raided the building, looking for the property manager John Sinclair. “Peg,” to whom Sinclair had gifted two joints, was actually a Detroit Police officer named Jane Mumford Lovelace. “Louis” was not a candle maker, but her fellow cop Vahan Kapagian, who had grown his hair and beard out to blend in.Police made more than 50 arrests, including Sinclair’s wife Leni, but Sinclair was the only one who faced serious charges after being let out on bail. A beat poet and obsessive of black jazz culture as well as a lefty agitator, Sinclair had attracted attention from the Detroit Police “Red Squad,” which monitored left-wing groups. But in their attempt to take him down, which spawned a years-long legal battle, the cops helped turn him into an extremely of-his-time icon.Today, legalization is regarded as a mainstream position, with even right-wing politicians like John Boehner supporting the movement and joining the large multi-state operators now maneuvering to control the cannabis industry. Sinclair and his contemporaries helped create the conditions for that industry to exist, but they aren’t the ones best poised to profit off of it. One of Sinclair’s radical contemporaries, former Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers—who roomed with Sinclair’s fellow White Panther Milton “Skip” Taube at the University of Michigan—doesn’t think that Boehner should be able to jump to the front of the line.“You know I heard an interview on the radio where they kept asking him, ‘Aren’t you sorry that a lot of people went to jail and lives were broken?’ He said, ‘No, because that’s the way I understood it then.’ Well that’s bullshit,” Ayers told VICE. “Legalizing marijuana needs to be part of something bigger. It has to include reparations, and that means accountability for the people that brought us to the catastrophic place we were. People like John Boehner.”But Sinclair sees his side as having achieved victory in spite of those people. “They hate marijuana smokers. They used to put us in prison. Now the bulk of the population supports us, but they still haven’t adjusted to that. Pretty soon you won’t be able to get elected if you don’t support marijuana legalization,” the 77-year-old said. “It’s very satisfying to see the tables turned on these rotten, lying motherfuckers. All this horrible police state shit. It’s the fabric of daily life in America that we’ve got to rip apart and dispense of. That’s going to be the hard part, is picking this shit out of the culture and throwing it away.”The pro-weed activists of Sinclair’s era won an important victory: Cannabis legalization has swept through all regions of the country at this point. But their story also shows how difficult lasting change can be.The MC5, John Sinclair (right) and their friends in 1967. Photo by Leni Sinclair/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty ImagesSinclair was once described by Detroit Free Press as the city’s “head hippie,” a figure with “wild hair” and a “drooping mustache.” He was a radical, a member of a generation of pro-cannabis activists who saw the drug’s use as part of their resistance to capitalism and the state, and who sometimes made it the object of quasi-religious fervor. Sinclair saw weed as occupying a similar place as sex in Orwell’s 1984 . It set teenagers’ basic desires in opposition with the capitalist establishment, and was a key weapon in the “total assault on the culture” the hippie movement was attempting.But the strident anti-authoritarianism of the Detroit Artists Workshop—someone hung a banner out of the window during the infamous 1967 riots reading “Burn Baby Burn”—led to what activists described as harassment from the police, and violence from those with anti-hippie sentiments. After a firebomb attack on the MC5 bus and a series of assaults on women in the group, Trans-Love Energies relocated to a house on Hill Street in Ann Arbor, near the University of Michigan. It was there that John and Leni Sinclair left what was arguably their most enduring legacy, as part of a group of agitators who pushed the college town to adopt the most progressive pot policies in the country, making Ann Arbor, as the New York Times put it years later, “the Dope Capital of the Midwest.” There, Trans-Love dreamed of building a revolutionary enclave like the Maoist cadres they admired. Unlike Detroit, Sinclair says now, the cops weren’t going to bust down too many doors. And crucially, it was largely white.“In Ann Arbor it was all the children of rich people,” Sinclair said. “The police were really precisely geared to not cause trouble for them. They were going to have to be lawyers, and doctors, and shit. So we took advantage of that. That’s why we went there. Because they only had ten police cars.”Like campuses across the country, Ann Arbor in 1968 was teeming with radical youth, but something in the Trans-Love formula was especially compelling. In the MC5, the collective found a bridge between their leftist ideology, Sinclair’s Beatnik reefer worship, and the emerging blue-collar rock scene in Detroit. The band would play to a young, suburban audience at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, then return home to Ann Arbor to do free outdoor concerts. As the band’s manager, Sinclair arranged for the MC5 to perform outside of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that August. They returned to form the White Panther Party—named after the Black Panther Party—and called in their ten-point program for revolution through “rock 'n’ roll, dope, and fucking in the streets.”The group even established a nonprofit ecclesiastical wing, the Church of Zenta, based around ritual use of weed and hallucinogens. “Zenta is the religion to end all religions,” Leni Sinclair said. “That’s how I look at it. Because it’s the only religion that says ‘yes’ where other religions say ‘no’ or ‘thou shalt not.’ Well hippies say ‘yes.’ Yes, smoke weed. Have sex. Be who you are... Anybody who smokes weed is a Zenta believer, whether they know the term or not."In 1969, White Panther leaders, including Sinclair, were indicted on conspiracy charges related to a string of bombings in Ann Arbor targeting buildings associated with the military and CIA. FBI Section Chief R.L. Shackelford called the White Panthers “potentially the largest and most dangerous of revolutionary organizations in the United States,” and the group was targeted for surveillance under the agency’s COINTELPRO program. (The bombing case would go all the way to the US Supreme Court, which ruled that the government had illegally wiretapped the WPP; the charges were subsequently dropped.)But the thing that drew the most controversy was Sinclair’s sentence, handed down in July 1969, for those two joints he gave the undercover cop: ten years in prison. Bobby Seale (center) speaks at the John Sinclair Freedom Rally in 1972, flanked by bodyguards. Photo by Leni Sinclair/GettyThe disproportionate penalty made him a cause celebre, with leading figures on the left—from Black Panther Party founder Bobby Seale to John Lennon—coming to his defense. At the John Sinclair Freedom Rally in 1971, Lennon and Yoko Ono performed a new tune, “John Sinclair,” that distilled the case to a sound bite: “They gave him ten for two—what more can the bastards do?” Days later, Sinclair was released on bond and his conviction was overturned the next year, when the Michigan Supreme Court declared the state’s cannabis laws unconstitutional. The landmark case reduced the penalty for “simple possession” to a misdemeanor, and brought the maximum sentence down from ten years to one. The maximum sentence for sale of pot was reduced from life to four years. On April 1, when the new regime came into effect, Sinclair’s supporters gathered on Ann Arbor campus to celebrate his victory. The party has been held every year since, in what is now known as the Ann Arbor Hash Bash festival.“The atmosphere after John got out of jail was one of great expectations for the future,” Leni Sinclair said. “We were on the national stage and had pulled off a very successful John Sinclair Freedom Rally. That is, until the government ...Read more

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