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The legalization of medical marijuana by means of a ballot initiative approved by 62 percent of Michigan voters in the 2008 election signaled the end of the drug war that’s raged unchecked for almost a half-century without appreciable positive effect. Any fool can see that the use of recreational drugs by our citizens has not been diminished or in any way abated by the efforts of the legions of police, prosecutors, judges and jailers sworn to stop us from getting high.
In my last column I surmised that perhaps the War on Drugs wasn’t really about drug use per se but was launched as an attack on certain sectors of our citizenry whose commitment to social change was seen as presenting a threat to the dominant order and the political, economic and cultural imperatives established as the foundation of corporate consumer society.
During the decade from 1965 to 1975, hippies turned their backs en masse on mainstream America and its perverse value system, refused to fight its wars, and attempted to create an alternative way of life based in sharing, tolerance and self-realization through collective effort and creative production. Their withdrawal from the reigning social contract presented a real challenge to the consumerist system and its operators: Until defecting to the hippie ideal, these young Americans had been expected to inherit and manipulate the machinery of exploitation and control devised by generations of rich white people to maintain their privileged existence at the top of the social order.
It’s hard for people today to picture the world the hippies populated as our numbers grew from a few isolated pockets of bohemianism and weirdness in disparate parts of the country into a movement of millions of determined young white people demanding a new and better world for all Americans and a swift end to the militarism, racism, sexism, economic exploitation and banal popular culture at the core of the established order.
Hippies were united by their belief in personal freedom and its manifestation in the way they looked and acted and conducted their daily lives outside the social mainstream. As a general rule, hippies had long hair, wore funky clothes expressing their disdain for the consumer ideal, opposed the war in Vietnam and increasingly refused to join the armed forces, didn’t have a real job and didn’t want one, often embraced collective work for the common good and lived as equals in communes and creative groupings, actively appreciated diverse forms of artistic expression and lived with music at the exact heart of their lives.
Hippies loved to gather in the thousands at concerts in the parks where the bands played for free and the people danced and laughed and had a ball together over and over again. They also turned out in ever-increasing numbers for rallies and demonstrations in opposition to the war in Vietnam and in support of racial equality and social justice.
Hippie musicians created startling new forms and imaginative extensions of the African-American musical idioms introduced into their lives through the magic of repeated radio airplay of 45 rpm records by innovative artists such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley, Ray Charles, James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye. But what bound hippies together above all else was marijuana as a component of everyday life. A hippie smoked weed, everybody knew that, and hippies smoked weed together, in every possible circumstance.
Despite the positive and progressive aspects of the hippie philosophy and the hippies’ committed social practice in pursuit of its principles, despite the brilliance of their music and art forms, despite their heartfelt visions of a better world based in peace and love and social equality for all, hippies were demonized as criminal narcotics users to be apprehended, brought before the bar of justice, convicted and sent to prison or scrutinized by the narcotics police and courts for years as felonious probationers.
Nothing else the hippies did was against the law. Even our protests and demonstrations were protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Our lifestyle, our living and working arrangements, our music and cultural practices, our gatherings and public celebrations, however unusual or offensive to mainstream values, were well within the strictures of the law. Only our mass recreational, medicinal or spiritual smoking of marijuana ? which we well knew was at the very least not a narcotic, and very possibly a beneficial natural healing resource with no discernible negative social effects ? brought trouble with law enforcement and provided the police with a socially acceptable way to punish these renegades from the American Way whose very presence seemed to violate every established standard of normal behavior.
My own case exemplifies this. I was a socially active poet, performer, underground journalist, cultural organizer and community broadcaster who also spoke out for the legalization of marijuana starting in 1964 and actually smoked marijuana on a daily basis. I was arrested by the Detroit Narcotics Squad three times for possession and sales of narcotics ? very small amounts of marijuana in fact ? and served a total of five years probation, six months in the Detroit House of Correction, and 2-1/2 years of a 9-1/2- to 10-year prison sentence before my legal challenge to the constitutionality of Michigan’s narcotics statutes eventually resulted, in 1972, with the existing law declared unconstitutional; marijuana was then removed from the narcotics category and possession of small amounts of marijuana reduced to a misdemeanor with a one-year maximum sentence.
My writings and public activities, however offensive or disturbing to guardians of the social order, were constitutionally protected. But my use of marijuana as a righteous component of daily life branded me as a criminal ? a felon ? subject to the brutal invasion of my life itself by the criminal justice system and its enforcers in uniform or plainclothes.
I’m out of space for this installment, but with your permission I’ll continue to pursue this line of thought here in seeking a full understanding of the destructive impact of the War on Drugs on harmless marijuana smokers and on the fabric of our social order itself. Our lives ? and our national life as well ? have suffered immeasurably from the imposition and unbridled growth of the police-state mechanism that’s been built up on our backs.
Me, I’ve been sick of this shit for all of my adult life, and I just hope I’ll live long enough to see the War on Drugs dead and buried and the full range of its punitive apparatus dismantled and finally discredited once and for all.
John Sinclair, founder of the White Panthers, is a poet. His latest book is It’s All Good.
This article originally ran in the Metro Times.