Ann Arbor’s Hash Bash returned for a 53rd year, just days after inspiration’s death

posted DetroitFreePress

The Ann Arbor Hash Bash returned on Saturday for a 53rd year, flooding the city’s streets with thousands of people repping the famous green-fingered leaf. But sadly, this year’s event took place without the man who inspired it all over five decades ago.

John Sinclair, a counterculture icon whose personal fight against the war on drugs significantly helped to decriminalize and eventually legalize marijuana in Michigan, died Tuesday morning at 82 after years of declining health, just four days before he was scheduled to read one of his poems at this year’s Hash Bash.

Sinclair would’ve taken the stage among the dozens of other artists and activists who stepped up to the microphone to share their stories about how marijuana has made an immense impact on their lives, sometimes helping to ease their mental illnesses or alleviate chronic pain.

Instead, family members and longtime friends joined the stage as speakers stood and remembered Sinclair and others who devoted their lives to the fight to legalize marijuana.

“Last year, we were here, he was in a wheelchair in the rain, but we made it. He smoked right here,” said Sunny Sinclair, one of Sinclair’s two daughters who helped to care for him in his final years, while pointing to a spot on the stage. “It’s so nice that everyone’s thinking of him.”

Laith Al-Saadi, a blues musician and friend of Sinclair since 2001, usually opens up the Hash Bash with a song at high noon, but at this year’s event, he performed a song that John Lennon wrote for Sinclair while he was imprisoned in 1971.

“I grew up in Ann Arbor, and I was born in 1977 so he was already a legend here. The reason I grew up in a town that had (you get) a $5 fine for possession of pot when people in Nevada were being put in jail for 10 years for the same amount. It’s just remarkable, he changed my youth,” said Al-Saadi. “I think the best thing we can do is leave this world a better place than we came into it, and I think this world is a better place for John Sinclair having been here.”

Back in the 1960s, Sinclair had already made himself known as a marijuana martyr. But in 1966, a third arrest for giving two free joints to an undercover Detroit cop got him busted and sentenced to a minimum of 9½ years in prison.

“He didn’t mean to be all that trouble; he wasn’t like a ‘rebel,'” said Sunny Sinclair.

“He just stood up for what was just and what were human rights,” continued Al-Saadi, going on to explain he and Sinclair believed that people should not be incarcerated for what they choose to put in their bodies.

Sinclair went to prison in 1969, but a movement to free Sinclair from what his supporters called cruel and unusual punishment flooded the country and spread across borders.

On Dec. 10, 1971, a “Free John Sinclair” rally held at U-M’s Crisler Arena attracted 15,000 people and several stars. Lennon and Yoko Ono, Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger and other musicians performed as the crowd openly smoked weed in an act of civil disobedience to protest Sinclair’s imprisonment.

The Michigan Supreme Court reversed his conviction just three days later and the penalty for possession of marijuana in Ann Arbor diminished, but by the following year, the rally for Sinclair’s freedom became an annual event to protest drug laws, known as the “Hash Bash.”

Thousands of people have come together in Ann Arbor on the first Saturday of April each year since 1972 to hear activists and political figures speak in support of marijuana. In 2002, the Monroe Street Fair opened up alongside the rally for canna-business entrepreneurs to sell their goods and for food trucks to feed smokers’ pot-stimulated appetites.

Over the years, the event transitioned into more of a social pot-legalization celebration, but Al-Saadi insists its attendees not lose sight of where it started with the rally against Sinclair’s arrest.

“I want to make sure people remember this is not a festival to smoke pot; this should still be a protest against the war on drugs,” said Al-Saadi.

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