The Ann Arbor Hash Bash owes its existence to a man who was an underground newspaper publisher, manager of a radical rock band, jazz writer and poet. John Sinclair had no idea what profound history he would unleash, when in December, 1966, he gave two joints to two undercover police officers, who set him up after an insidious five-month sting operation.
That act of generosity earned Sinclair a 9 1/2 – 10 year prison sentence under Michigan’s felony marijuana laws, a punishment so outrageous that Abbie Hoffman interrupted The Who’s concert at Woodstock to express his disapproval. He was not alone. The December 10, 1971 “John Sinclair Freedom Rally” at Crisler Arena brought John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Stevie Wonder, Phil Ochs, Bob Seger, Archie Shepp, Allen Ginsberg, David Rubin, Bobby Seale and original “Yippie” Hoffman, among other luminaries, to join Sinclair’s wife Leni in advocating for his release. Lennon even wrote a new song for the occasion, “John Sinclair.”
In one of those amazing (and all too rare) moments of history, those in power listened. Three days after the rally, the Michigan Supreme Court, on its own motion, ordered Sinclair released from prison after serving almost a year and a half, while it considered the constitutionality of the law. Freedom fighters and marijuana reformers were jubilant. The Court completed its review when it overturned Sinclair’s conviction on March 9, 1972, declaring that the statute violated the constitution’s equal protection clause for erroneously classifying marijuana as a narcotic.
The drug was reclassified by the legislature, and possession was deemed a misdemeanor. But the new law did not take effect until April 3, 1972, creating a window of time in which there was no state law on the books. To celebrate, anonymous founders jokingly suggested Ann Arbor’s first “Hash Festival” on April 1, 1972, putting up flyers promoting Pharaoh Sanders, Van Morrison, and their own fictitious band. None of the three were actually going to appear, but the Michigan Daily picked up the story and people showed up on the Diag, UM’s main square. According to the Daily, 500 attended (police estimated 150) and no arrests were made at what the Ann Arbor News called an “orderly festival.”
A few months later, Ann Arbor’s City Council passed an ordinance making marijuana possession a mere $5 civil fine – and putting Ann Arbor on the map as a beacon for proponents of cannabis reform, not to mention users of marijuana and its more potent derivative, hashish or “hash.”
The next year’s Hash Bash boasted 3,000-5,000 participants and featured Michigan State Representative Perry Bullard, unabashedly liberal and in favor of marijuana legalization, toking on a joint in a now-famous photo. UM football coach Bo Schembechler was quoted as saying that Bullard’s act would scare away football recruits. But it didn’t hurt Bullard, who went on to enjoy a successful 20 year career as Ann Arbor’s state representative, or Schembechler, whose team went undefeated in 1973 and went on to win or tie for ten Big Ten titles thereafter.
Perhaps embarrassed by the national publicity, and spurred by a court ruling adverse to the lax ordinance, City Council, led by a now-different mayor, repealed the new law after that 1973 Hash Bash. The mayor who had a cherry pie thrown at him in council chambers for his troubles.
The political seesaw continued. The April 1, 1974 Bash remarkably coincided with a successful city-wide referendum to entrench the $5 civil marijuana fine in the city charter, making it impossible for the law to be overturned by a vote of council. Nonetheless, organizers of the referendum fretted about the timing, constantly reminding revelers on the Diag to make sure they voted.
Over the next several years, the Hash Bash waned. As early as 1977, the Michigan Daily lamented that the event wasn’t the same as the “good old days.” Just two years later, the paper editorialized to end the Hash Bash, which they called a “disgusting … farce” taken over by “belligerent and hostile” high school students. Interest continued to flag, and the Daily and Ann Arbor News each eulogized the event as dead, with no discernible attendance in 1984 or 1985.
In 1986, the Daily wrote that “at noon, about 130 people lit up, forming a ragged group that began at the brass M.” 1987 was similar, and for the second straight year, police essentially ignored the event with no reported arrests.
But a change occurred in 1988 that altered the course of future Bashes. The campus chapter of NORML, the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws, pulled a sound permit from UM. A lineup of speakers advocated for legalization, with taxes to be used to support treatment for hard drug users. Nonetheless, a party atmosphere prevailed. The crowd was entertained by a three-foot tall water pipe and legendary Diag denizen Shakey Jake. The highlight was a large contingent from High Times magazine – a publication dedicated to marijuana and drug reform efforts – who entered the Diag dressed as colonial Minutemen, playing instruments, and carrying a banner proclaiming “Pot Is Legal.” High Times featured their “psychedelic bus” road trip and the Hash Bash in its July, 1988 issue, and as stated by longtime Hash Bash emcee Adam Brook said, “After that, the event became huge, like overnight.”
Accordingly, 1989 saw up to 5,000 people celebrating on April 1, along with speakers and bands. That same evening, the UM men’s basketball team edged Illinois to earn a trip to the national championship game (which the team would win two days later). The ensuing celebration on South University turned into a riot, which UM President James Duderstadt blamed not only on the Hash Bash, but also “Deadheads” arriving early for the April 5 and 6 Grateful Dead concerts. This prompted UM officials to publicly state they would deny the campus NORML chapter a permit to hold the Bash the following year.
UM relented under strong pressure, then reversed course, and denied a permit just weeks before the 1990 event. Moreover, the University’s newly formed police force vowed to enforce state marijuana law, with its harsh criminal penalties. At the same time, city council placed an issue on the ballot which would increase the civil penalties for marijuana possession from $5 to $25, with increased sanctions for repeat offenses.
These were low times for marijuana advocates. They went to the Washtenaw County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which agreed to take the case. Brook was shocked and impressed that the ACLU would agree to help their efforts. And it paid off, with the judge issuing an injunction. Brook recalls, “The University didn’t really have a Diag use policy. People used to have shanties that just stayed up on the Diag. The judge told them to have a policy. They used the policy against us. They invoiced us $12,000 for cleanup. They wanted us to pay for police costs, and literally pay for police to arrest us. We ended up suing them, [successfully] five times in six years.” Washtenaw County Circuit Judge Donald E. Shelton wrote in his 1993 opinion, after UM’s third straight loss, “The University fails to understand the basic premise of constitutional law.”
The University’s indifference to opposition galvanized marijuana advocates. In 1990, Rich Birkett, a key organizer in the late ‘80’s, returned to emcee the event, sarcastically “thanking the University for its free publicity.” In 1991, NORML suggested the name Hemp Rally, and moved the date from April 1 to the first Saturday in April, because “this is not a joke.” (The date change stuck; the name change didn’t.) UM once again lost its court battle, and up to 10,000 people crowded the Diag. Speakers urged supporters to refrain from smoking, to keep the focus on changing the law, especially the legalization of medical marijuana.
Over the next several years, NORML’s well-organized rallies continued to draw thousands, under vigilant pressure from UM police – who arrested drug users, underage drinkers, and even vendors selling merchandise. Brook also credits the internet and fax machines for the resurgence in attendance, but he clarifies that “NORML at the national or state level was not involved in the Hash Bash. We were really a group that had monthly meetings at Dominick’s restaurant and got enough students involved to pull a permit from UM.” (Brook, who began a long tenure of emceeing the event in 1993, was identified in media as the “president of the campus chapter” though he never attended school here; Birkett identified himself in letters as “coordinator, Ann Arbor NORML.”)
This seemed to be the pattern over the next two decades – political speeches, mixed crowds of serious reformers and titillated teens, and the brooding presence of UM cops. Brook explains, “UM figured out they were increasing the size of the event by trying to stop it, and since then have literally left us alone. They still send police to arrest us but they don’t try to stop us anymore.” During this era, the reform movement pressed on, buoyed by 2008 the passage of Michigan’s medical marijuana ballot initiative by 63% of the vote. Speakers continued to focus on reform efforts.
However, it would not be accurate to say that the Hash Bash is “planned.” Brook says, “If nobody did anything, thousands of people would still show up on the Diag the first Saturday in April. As an organizer, it’s the largest unadvertised event in the country. The Ann Arbor Visitors Bureau will deny it exists, but the reality is you can’t get a hotel room.” Michigan NORML (MiNORML) Executive Director Matt Abel adds that showing up for Hash Bash is “one of the few pieces of marijuana freedom we still have.”
More accurately, it’s really only the speakers’ program on the Diag that requires some organization. As an emcee from 1993 – 2011, Brook says he handled this “as a committee of one,” welcoming the crowd, reminding them that smoking pot is against the law, and then often opening with John Sinclair reciting one of his poems. He then decided on the rest of the lineup “on the fly. I had a list of names in my pocket and told people to be on the [Graduate Library] steps around me, and I choose the next speaker based on my judgment of the crowd and what should come next, the “right firebrand.””
Brook also likes to keep things short, holding speeches to 2-3 minutes (except for Sinclair) and the program to an hour, to minimize the opportunity for attendees to be arrested. He also liked to keep the focus on local activists speaking about local issues with, perhaps, a big headliner, “One year we had Tommy Chong [of Cheech & Chong] and another [actor/director] David Arquette.”
Brook did not emcee in 2012 or 2013, as he was serving a two year prison sentence from a felony firearm charge. A cancer survivor with an expired medical marijuana card, he states he was targeted in a “dope case with 14 charges; I pled guilty to a single count of having guns in my house.” The other charges, relating to seized marijuana and other related evidence, were dropped in a plea bargain.
In the meantime, the event’s organization shifted to committee. Activist Charmie Gholson of “Michigan Moms United” wanted to intensify the focus of the 2012 Hash Bash on the harsh effects that a failed “war on drugs” has on families. She was quoted on CBS Detroit as denying the event was about getting “stoned,” adding “I see nothing funny about hundreds of thousands of Americans being arrested and put in handcuffs every year and getting criminal records and being denied the right to vote and denied the ability to get housing and jobs, that’s not funny to me. I don’t do giggly stoner jokes at all.” Working with campus activist Nick Zettell and local activist Chuck Ream, they opened the 2012 Bash with local musician Laith Al-Saadi performing the Star Spangled Banner, with California activist and medical marijuana leader Steve DeAngelo of the Harborside Clinic headlining the speakers.
Gholson said the crowd was rapt, and marveled at the UM-provided sound system. She asked at the outset “Can you hear me?” and saw hands raised as far away as State Street. She observes progress in the movement, noting that “before 2008 everything was black market. Now every legislator in every state is tripping over themselves to get on the bandwagon of reform.”
Gholson returned in 2013 to co-emcee with Mark Passerini, and the speakers’ lineup included local elected officials and former High Times “Ask Ed” columnist and cultivation guru Ed Rosenthal. But with Brook returning this year, the responsibility for planning speakers is less clear. Says Nick Zettell, an organizer and the former president of the UM Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, “I worked with Adam a couple years ago when he kind of took me under his wing, and we have met recently a couple times to discuss organization for 2014. We have proposed a lineup of speakers, and I will help to secure the speakers who will be attending.”
Brook believes the focus this year should be local ballot initiatives for legalization, and responses to the “behavior of elected officials in Michigan House and Senate and the horrible proposed legislation gutting the medical marijuana act.” Zettell adds that “It’s important to educate people about how they can get involved and what they can get involved in. The topic is so expansive – legalization hits people in so many different ways – that it’s important to provide inlets for pursuing engagement into this realm.”
The 2014 Hash Bash will be on Saturday, April 5, beginning as always at “high noon.” The day before, the charismatic Rosenthal will lead a seminar at the Sheraton from high noon to “4:20,” which is expected to sell out at $40 per ticket (www.arborside.net/events). Also Friday at the Sheraton will be MiNORML’s spring meeting from 7– 9:30pm. Matt Abel notes that will provide an opportunity to “renew friendships and membership dues” as a prelude to attending Hash Bash the next day.
Abel, an attorney who specializes in cannabis cases, states that MiNORML “wants to legalize marijuana. We believe taxation should be the same as sales tax on anything else, 6%, and that anything else will drive it back underground. Hemp can be used for food, fuel, and fiber, and it’s time to unleash the economic potential of this product. Marijuana is not harmful to the body physically; there’s very little evidence of harm to adults. We don’t advocate that minors use cannabis or any other substance, but it is less harmful than alcohol – and in fact a much healthier replacement for alcohol or tobacco.”
Abel mentioned a friend’s prediction that Michigan will be one of the next five states to legalize marijuana, but says “I’m not sure I agree,” noting Michigan’s gerrymandered legislature and efforts to stymie progressive dispensary legislation. He also discussed the financial realities of obtaining ballot signatures. An all-volunteer effort in 2012 obtained only 50,000 signatures, “well short” of the minimum 300,000 required. Estimating a cost of $1 per signature, plus the costs of staff, Abel calculates “We need 300-500,000 signatures, so we need a million dollars. Either a large donor has to step forth, or” – he reflects a bit wistfully – “perhaps I need to learn to be a proper fundraiser.”
For the 13th straight year, the Hash Bash is accompanied by the loosely affiliated Monroe Street Fair Hash Bash Festival, kicking off at the same time two blocks south of the Diag. The Monroe Street festival features music, speakers, and unbridled fun until 6 PM, with an unofficial after-party at the Blind Pig for the duration of the evening. And for early risers, there will be a protest against drug enforcement raids in Michigan at 10:30 AM at the Ann Arbor Federal Building.
The movement has come a long way since John Sinclair’s 9 1/2 to 10 year sentence.
For those interested in Hash Bash history, and an abundance of archived photographs and articles, Rich Birkett has maintained an impressive site at freedomactivist.net/hashbash.html#archive, and I am grateful to him for this rich background.
1969 John Sinclair was arreasted
1971 Yoko Ono and John Lennon preform at a free John Sinclair concert rally (right)
1971 One of many flyers advocatng Sinclair's release
1972 Marijuana possession reduced to a Civil Infraction
1972 Perry Bullard
1973 Cherry Pie was thrown at the Mayor during 1973's Hash Bash
1988 Campus Chapter of NORML pull sound permit from UM
1988 High TImes Article published