Updated: Nov 20, 2020
The origins and evolution of Ann Arbor's annual reefer rally.
This is the story of how a small Midwestern college town became the home of America’s longest-running cannabis event and a legendary legalization location.
FREEING JOHN SINCLAIR
It all began in December 1966, when prominent poet, pot activist, and White Panther John Sinclair unknowingly gave two joints to an undercover policewoman from the Detroit Narcotics Bureau. A month later he was arrested, tried, and in 1969, sentenced to a shocking ten years in prison. This disproportionately draconian penalty (no doubt intended to make an example of Sinclair), drew widespread outrage among the counterculture community—particularly with the Youth International Party. “Yippie” activist Abbie Hoffman famously stormed on stage whilst tripping balls during The Who’s set at Woodstock and shouted into the microphone, “I think this is a pile of shit while John Sinclair rots in prison …” before guitarist Pete Townshend violently ejected him.
While that stunt may not have done much to help Sinclair, the Yippies' follow-up efforts certainly did: in December 1971, they helped organize a massive rally on Sinclair’s behalf at the University of Michigan’s Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor. Known as the “John Sinclair Freedom Rally,” it included other Yippies like Jerry Rubin, marijuana minstrel David Peel, and future High Times founder Tom Forcade, as well as Beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg, and NORML founder Keith Stroup. More importantly, though, it featured performances by big-name musical acts like Bob Seger, Stevie Wonder, and most impressively, former Beatle John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono, who even wrote a song for the occasion titled simply "John Sinclair." (A documentary film of the event, named Ten For Two after the movement’s rallying cry, was released the following year).
Just three days after that concert, Michigan’s Supreme Court ordered Sinclair’s release on bond pending appeal after serving only 2.5 years of his sentence. At the appeal hearing, that same court dismissed his case—ruling that he'd been entrapped and that his sentence was “cruel and unusual.” Moreover, the court declared that the 1952 state law used to convict him—which classified cannabis as a “narcotic”—was inaccurate and therefore unconstitutional, and overturned it. The state legislature quickly drafted and passed a replacement, but enforcement of that new law didn’t take effect until April 1st. This meant that for about three weeks, marijuana was technically legal in the State of Michigan.
RISE OF THE RALLY
Taking full advantage of this unique legal window—and inspired by the action that had set Sinclair free months earlier—local activists organized a pro-pot political rally on the very day the new law was set to take effect. And that, my friends, is how Hash Bash was born. Held at high noon on Saturday, April 1, 1972, at “The Diag” (the central Diagonal Green) on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, the original event—called simply “Hash Festival”—was reportedly attended by somewhere between 150-500 people and had no arrests.
The Democrat-led city council in Ann Arbor had already debated downgrading marijuana possession from a felony to a misdemeanor in 1971. In May 1972—just a month after the rally—they passed an ordinance reducing the penalty for possession to a mere $5 fine, followed by another in September allowing offenders to pay those fines through the mail rather than having to appear in court. This gave Ann Arbor the doobious distinction of being the city with the most liberal pot laws in America.
When April Fool’s Day rolled around again the following year, so did Hash Bash—this time drawing 3000-5000 attendees. Outraged, Conservatives fought back—repealing the lenient law in 1973. But less than a year later, the quarrelsome issue made it onto the ballot as a voter referendum and was voted back into law in April 1974—just in time for Hash Bash number three, which was now officially an annual event.
Thanks to the “Just Say No” Reagan era, attendance and interest in Hash Bash saw a steep decline in the 1980s, leading some local officials and newspapers to prematurely celebrate its seeming demise. But all that changed in 1988 with the arrival of High Times. Then editor-in-chief Steve Hager and his Freedom Fighters (including columnists Ed Rosenthal and Chef Ra, among others) rolled into Ann Arbor sporting Colonial tricorn hats and musical instruments—drawing a crowd of nearly 2000 and reinvigorating the faltering festival.
A further effort was made to increase attendance in 1991 when the annual date of the event was changed from the first of April to the first Saturday in April. In the years that followed, the University made several attempts to shut the rally down by denying permits and such, prompting