Free the Weed: 50 Years After the John Sinclair Freedom Rally

Photo: Michael Donnelly.

Hi everybody, welcome to the end of 2021 and the 50th anniversary of the John Sinclair Freedom Rally on December 10, 1971 and my release three days later from a 9-1/2 to 10 year prison sentence for giving away two joints to an undercover policewoman in Detroit just before Christmas of 1966.

This modest gift was a token of my belief in the necessity of giving away marijuana to those who don’t have any. When I was coming up in the marijuana culture of the sixties, we believed that if you had some weed and didn’t pass along a little bit to the next person who didn’t have any, you risked the distinct possibility of never being given any weed again for your own use. I didn’t want to face that particular reality and it was Christmas time, so I went ahead and gave the woman two joints when she asked for one.

I learned quite painfully from my first two marijuana busts—this was the third!—that it was more than just stupid to be selling weed in my position because the police would move in at their earliest convenience and knock you down for sales and possession of narcotics.

That’s right: Believe it or not, marijuana was deemed a narcotic by the forces of law and order from 1937 until the 1970s and carried the kind of heavy penalties we’ve come to associate with narcotics law enforcement: ten years for possession and a mandatory minimum 20-years-to-life sentence for sale of marijuana. I was born in October 1941 and consequently suffered under this law for the whole of my adult life.

Well, not all of it, because when I was 30 years old, early in 1972, after contesting the established laws in Detroit Recorder’s Court for a period of five years since my arrest and initial incarceration on January 24, 1967 and after my release on bond, trying to prove that marijuana was not a narcotic and that twenty years to life constituted cruel and unusual punishment, I finally went to trial on what had become merely a simple possession charge when the prosecution dropped the sales charge against me the day before the trial started in July 1969. My only defense was that marijuana was not a narcotic and, as a marijuana smoker, I was not a narcotics addict nor a criminal of any sort, so it was easy for the judge, the prosecutor and their carefully selected jury members to obtain a conviction for possession of marijuana.

Despite his last-minute amendment to the bill of particulars, the Recorder’s Court judge, Robert J. Columbo, and his virtually hand-picked jury went ahead and convicted me of narcotics possession just the same, and I was sentenced to 9-1/2 to ten years in prison and remanded to the penitentiary at Jackson to serve my time.

To top it off, Judge Columbo refused to grant me an appeal bond while my case was being reviewed in the higher courts, so I had to do every day of the time to which he had sentenced me. Even worse, after my month in the Reception & Diagnostic Center at Jackson where they determined what to do with me for 10 years, I was sent 600 miles north to Marquette Branch Prison to settle in with the heavy criminals.

That’s the way it looked every day for my 29 months in Jackson and Marquette Prisons, although my colleagues and I did everything we could to try to shorten my sentence. Starting with the Trans-Love Energies benefit on January 29, 1967 and continuing until December 10, 1971, my friends and comrades staged countless events in my behalf, from little bitty dances in union halls and high school venues to multiple-day events at the Grande and Easttown Ballrooms in Detroit and everything in between.

Until just before I went to prison in July 1969 I had been functioning as the manager of a great Detroit rock & roll band called the MC-5 who were in the process of building a massive audience and gaining a major label recording contact with Elektra Records and a national and international reputation for themselves.

The MC-5’s support for my case played an important role during my battle against the narcotics laws, and the band’s central position in its hometown attracted the positive attention and undying support of almost every other band in the community—with the exception, of course, of asshole Ted Nugent, then in his early days as an anti-drug propagandist—so that dozens and scores of bands were enlisted to play benefits for my legal defense between 1967 and 1972.

This effort culminated in the John Sinclair Freedom Rally of December 10, 1971, where John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Stevie Wonder, Bobby Seale, Phil Ochs, Allen Ginsberg, Ed Sanders, Archie Shepp & Roswell Rudd, CJQ, Bob Seger, the Up, Commander Cody and a host of others gathered with 15,000 supporters at Ann Arbor’s Crisler Arena to call for my release from prison. FREE JOHN NOW! was the battlecry, and it generated a whole new dimension of support for my case among the populace and, as it turned out, among the law enforcement community itself.

The Freedom Rally was scheduled for December 10 because, the previous year, the state legislature broke for the Christmas recess without voting on a bill that would have seriously altered the marijuana laws, removing marijuana from the narcotics laws and creating a special category called “controlled substances” to cover the weed. When the legislature passed on dealing with this question, they virtually sentenced me to an additional year in prison since I was sure that, if the new law ere to be passed, my incarceration would be at an end.

Thus it was my singular concern that we exert enough pressure on the state law-makers to force them to a vote on this bill in 1971, and our strategy was to push them and push them until it was done. The Freedom Rally was organized as a means to force them to deal with this proposed legislation before the year ended, and the Freedom Rally was planned for December 10th to accomplish this goal.

I wanted to make the biggest possible splash, and accordingly our pal at the University of Michigan, Peter Andrews, who was my business partner in the Trans-Love Energies non-profit corporation through which we did our work in the music business, and who was employed by the U of M to teach them how to produce and profit from large rock concerts, managed to rent for us the 15,000-seat Crisler basketball arena as the venue for the Freedom Rally.

Of course our efforts were doomed to failure unless we could secure enough big acts to fill the arena, and everything appeared lost until Jerry Rubin let us know that he had talked the Lennons into being part of the show. That insured our success, and then other big names invited themselves onto the bill, like Stevie Wonder and Bob Seger, and everything was groovy. We had created a major attraction, and our reward was that the Michigan Supreme Court voted to release me on appeal bond three days later, and I was sent home from prison on Monday, December 13th. On March 12, 1972, the same court voted to remove marijuana from the narcotics law and create a new category to cover the medicine of our choice, from now on to be known as a “controlled substance.”.

That’s what we’ve celebrating at the Ralston Holistic Health Center this month, and we’d be seriously remiss if we let this historic moment pass without singling it out somehow and blowing our horn in triumph 50 years after this miraculous accomplishment. Thanks, everybody, and may we never cease our efforts to FREE THE WEED!