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RIP John Sinclair (1941-2024)

John Sinclair, the legendary poet, activist, and patriarch of our cannabis community has died at the age of 82.

John Sinclair
Counterculture icon John Sinclair (photo by Jaime Menendez)

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

After graduating from the University of Michigan in Flint in 1964, Sinclair became involved in the underground press — mostly writing about music and drugs for the jazz magazine DownBeat and the alternative newspaper the Fifth Estate, among others, before later starting his own underground paper, the Ann Arbor Sun.

From 1966 to 1969, Sinclair managed Detroit proto-punk rockers the MC5 and helped develop the venue where they played, the Grande Ballroom, into one of the most popular music venues in the nation. In August 1968, he brought the group to Chicago, where they became the only band to play outside the Democratic National Convention as part of the Yippie protests there.

In November 1968, John and his wife Leni cofounded the White Panther Party (later renamed the Rainbow Peoples Party)—a radical political organization inspired by the Black Panthers that was dedicated to fighting racism and advancing the counterculture revolution. 

Then, in 1969, Sinclair was sentenced to ten years in prison for offering two joints to an undercover policewoman. This disproportionately severe punishment for such a minor infraction galvanized the counterculture around him: that August, Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman infamously ran on stage during Woodstock to plead his case (before being forcibly removed). Two years later, in December 1971, the Yippies and other activists organized the “Free John Sinclair Rally” in Ann Arbor to raise awareness for his plight (the event that inspired the city’s annual Hash Bash, which continues to this day). The rally featured musical performances by several major artists, including Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger, David Peel, Yoko Ono, and John Lennon, who even penned and performed a song about Sinclair. Just two days later, Sinclair was released from prison after Michigan’s Supreme Court declared the state’s marijuana laws unconstitutional.

Over the decades, Sinclair recorded many spoken word and jazz poetry albums, and wrote numerous books, pamphlets, and articles — including a long-running cannabis column entitled “Free the Weed” and the seminal pro-pot manifesto “Marijuana Revolution” in 1971. He also spent several years living in Amsterdam, where in 2004, he launched Radio Free Amsterdam (an online “podcast” network before podcasts were a thing) and recorded many episodes of his weekly program, The John Sinclair Music Show

Sinclair is widely credited for paving the way for marijuana legalization in his home state of Michigan and was one of the first people to purchase weed legally there in December 2019. Despite his declining health, he remained a revered fixture and figurehead there — appearing and often speaking at the Hash Bash rally each year. He passed away from congestive heart failure at the Detroit Receiving Hospital on the morning of Tuesday, April 2, 2024 (mere days before this year’s Hash Bash). He was 82. 

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