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Cannthropology: The Life and Legend of John Sinclair

The White Panther Party’s platform included the call for a “total assault on the culture by any means necessary."

This April, the Cannabis movement lost one of its founding fathers with the passing of the “Hippie King of Michigan,” John Sinclair. 

Origin of an Activist

When it comes to marijuana activists and advocates, beatnik badass John Sinclair was as OG as they come. 

Growing up in a middle-class Republican household in the small town of Davison, Michigan, Sinclair was first turned on to jazz, poetry, and marijuana in 1959 while attending Albion College. He then moved on to graduate school at Wayne State University in Detroit, where he quickly ingratiated himself into Motor City’s bohemian leftist community. 

In October 1964, Sinclair was arrested for selling $10 of weed to an undercover cop and sentenced to two years’ probation. Weeks later, he dropped out of college and co-founded both the Detroit Artists Workshop and the Artists’ Workshop Press. Then, in January 1965, he founded Detroit LEMAR (LEgalize MARijuana), a chapter of the nation’s first Cannabis advocacy group originally formed by the Yippies in New York. As the head of Detroit LEMAR, Sinclair organized meetings and printed pamphlets in support of marijuana, establishing himself as one of the true founding fathers of the legalization movement. 

In August 1965, Sinclair was busted again for weed and sentenced to another two years’ probation and six months in the Detroit House of Correction. Rather than be deterred by his incarceration, however, Sinclair only became more determined in his activist efforts.  

Trans-Love Energies

After his release from DeHoCo in August 1966, Sinclair — along with his then-wife Leni, a friend named Lawrence Robert “Pun” Plamondon, and others — expanded the DAW into the counterculture commune, Trans-Love Energies (TLE). In addition to their artistic and educational endeavors, the group now offered fellow hippies housing, transportation, and even a legal defense fund. To bankroll these efforts, TLE planned several events, starting with “Guerrilla Love Fare” — a concert at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom scheduled for Jan. 29, 1967. Unfortunately, days before the event, police intervened to stop it.

Just before dawn on January 24, police raided their commune as part of a four-month-long sting operation, during which an undercover officer persuaded Sinclair to give her two joints back on December 22. Of the 56 people arrested, only 14 were charged, including John and his pregnant wife. Leni’s case was later dismissed on a technicality, and the rest pleaded out to avoid jail time. John, however, chose to fight (more on that soon).

The White Panthers 

In the following months, TLE faced negative press, vandalism, and continued police persecution, which only grew worse following the Detroit Riots that July when dozens of African Americans were killed by police and 400 buildings were burned down. In solidarity with their Black brothers and sisters, TLE hung a banner outside the commune reading “Burn, Baby, Burn!”, provoking riot police to once again raid the building. To escape this harassment, TLE left Motor City in May 1968 and relocated to the liberal college town of Ann Arbor. 

That fall, inspired by an interview with Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton, John, Leni, and Pun formed a new, radical-left political organization called the White Panther Party (WPP) — a sort of hybrid between the Black Panthers and the Yippies. The group’s ten-point platform included free access to all basic human needs; demands for an end to war, money, and racial injustice; and the “total assault on the culture by any means necessary, including rock and roll, dope and fucking in the streets.” This agenda was seen as so radical that the FBI considered the group “potentially the largest and most dangerous of revolutionary organizations in the United States.”

Kicking Out the Jams

To deliver their mission to the masses, the White Panthers began hosting free concerts in Ann Arbor, featuring performances by a local rock band called the Motor City 5.

Sinclair had first met MC5 in August 1966 at an event held by the DAW, called the “Festival of People,” honoring his release from prison. Forming an immediate connection, the band quickly hired Sinclair as its manager and even incorporated the WPP’s logo into its artwork. Sinclair eventually booked them gigs as the house band at the Grande, and at the Yippies’ “Festival of Life” rally outside Chicago’s Democratic National Convention in the summer of 1968, where they were forced to flee after playing just a few songs due to a police-instigated riot. 

By that fall, the MC5 had moved into Sinclair’s commune and recorded their first album, “Kick Out the Jams,” for Electra Records. However, the label recalled the original pressing after the album’s profanity and Sinclair’s liner notes caused a backlash among retailers. The controversy caused the band to part ways with Electra … and in the summer of 1969, after signing with Atlantic, they unfortunately parted ways with Sinclair as well. 

Ten For Two 

In the years following his third arrest, Sinclair’s lawyers engaged in a protracted legal battle with the Michigan courts to challenge the constitutionality of the state’s draconian drug laws, arguing that marijuana was not a narcotic and that the mandated sentence of 20 years to life represented “cruel and unusual punishment.” After numerous defeated motions, the case finally went to trial on July 22, 1969. Three days later, the jury found him guilty of possession, and on Monday, July 28, he was sentenced to a staggering nine and a half to 10 years in state prison. 

Sinclair’s outrageous sentence made national headlines and galvanized the entire counterculture community under the rallying cry “Ten for Two” (ten years for two joints). Leni and John’s brother David orchestrated a massive campaign to free him by organizing benefits, selling “Free John Now!” merch, sending letters to Congress with joints in them, and recruiting celebrated activists on John’s behalf. Famously, Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman even stormed on stage at Woodstock during The Who’s set and gave an impromptu speech about Sinclair’s plight (while allegedly tripping on White Lightning) before Pete Townsend reportedly hit him with his guitar and sent him packing.

Free John Sinclair Rally 

In the summer of 1971, The Committee to Free John Sinclair organized their largest benefit yet — securing the University of Michigan’s new Crisler Arena for December 10, and booking a lineup of prominent activist speakers and performers, including Bob Seger, Stevie Wonder, and even former Beatle John Lennon, who— after talking with Yippie pals Ed Sanders and Jerry Rubin — agreed to headline the event for free. John and Yoko’s participation was announced at a press conference two days before the event, and tickets sold out within three hours. 

“It was like God was coming to Ann Arbor,” WPP member David Fenton remembered. 

The eight hours of activism, entertainment, and marijuana smoke climaxed with Lennon’s performance (his first since the Beatles’ breakup) at three a.m. He and Yoko played a four-song acoustic set, closing out with an eponymous new anthem he’d written for Sinclair:

“It ain’t fair, John Sinclair / In the stir for breathin’ air … They gave him ten for two / And what else can the judges do? / They gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta … set him free.”

Three days later, on December 13, that’s exactly what they did.

Hash Bash & Decrim 

As it happened, the day before the rally, the Michigan Legislature had passed a bill removing marijuana from the state’s narcotics code and drastically reducing the penalties associated with it. Given this development, the State Supreme Court ordered Sinclair to be freed pending the outcome of his appeal. Three months later, the court granted his appeal, overturned his conviction, and declared the state’s marijuana laws unconstitutional. 

Since the original Cannabis law was struck down in early March 1972, and the new law didn’t take effect until April 1, marijuana was effectively legal in Michigan for about three weeks. To both celebrate this victory and protest the new penalties being adopted, Sinclair helped organize a smoke-in at “The Diag” on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor on the day the new law was going into effect. That rally — later renamed “Hash Bash” — has been held the first Saturday of April every year since (see Cannthropology – January 2021).

During his incarceration, Sinclair’s communal collective evolved once again: turns out, the name “White Panther Party” sounded to some like a white supremacist group — the very opposite of their purpose. So in 1971, the WPP essentially disbanded and reconstituted as the community-oriented Rainbow Peoples Party and the politically-oriented Human Rights Party. The following year, HRP got two candidates elected to the City Council, enabling them to pass an ordinance making marijuana possession a civil offense carrying a fine of just $5 and making Ann Arbor the first city in America to decriminalize Cannabis. 

Later Years 

After successfully reforming Michigan’s marijuana laws, Sinclair retired from activism and shifted focus back to creative pursuits. First, he moved back to Detroit, where he became an arts editor for the Detroit Sun and hosted a radio show at WDET. Later, in 1991, he moved to New Orleans, where he spent 12 years DJing at WWOZ, writing about music, and forming his own spoken word/jazz band, John Sinclair and His Blues Scholars. Then, from 2003 to 2008, he lived in Amsterdam, where he launched Radio Free Amsterdam (broadcasting live from the 420 Café each week), and created The John Sinclair Foundation — a non-profit dedicated to preserving his artistic legacy. 

And what a legacy it was: over his lifetime, Sinclair released over 20 albums and wrote countless books, essays, and articles — including the long-running column “Free the Weed” and the seminal pro-pot manifesto “Marijuana Revolution” (in 1971). 

After moving back to Detroit in 2008, he opened the John Sinclair Foundation Café in 2018 and became one of the first people in Michigan to purchase weed legally in December 2019 after the passage of Measure 1. Despite his declining health, he remained a revered figurehead, appearing and speaking at Hash Bash each year. 

John Sinclair died of congestive heart failure at the Detroit Receiving Hospital on the morning of Tuesday, April 2, 2024. He was 82.


About Bobby Black

Bobby Black is a marijuana media icon. He spent 21 years at High Times magazine as an associate art director, senior editor, and columnist. He is currently the Content Director of California Leaf and Competition Director of the Leaf Bowl cannabis competitions. He is also the Executive Director of the World of Cannabis Museum project, host/writer of the cannabis history podcast/column Cannthropology, and co-founder of Higher Way Travel.

This article was originally published in the June 2024 issue of All Magazines.

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