John Sinclair is an American expatriate, Detroit poet, band manager for the proto-punk MC5 and founder of the White Panther Party – a militant group of anti-racists – which supported the Black Panthers during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. That resume alone would be enough to secure Sinclair’s place in American counterculture history – but when it comes to marijuana law reform, John Sinclair is a pivotal figure.
Sinclair’s revolutionary activities put him in the crosshairs of the ‘60s culture wars and the government sought to suppress his free speech by targeting his marijuana use. A lifelong devotee of the plant, Sinclair suffered a series of convictions for cannabis possession that culminated in a 10-year prison sentence for passing two joints to a narc in 1969.
John Lennon stepped in and wrote his seminal protest song “John Sinclair,” put it on his album Sometime In New York City, and performed it in Ann Arbor at the landmark John Sinclair Freedom Rally in December 1971 with Yoko Ono, David Peel and the Lower East Side. Other performers included Stevie Wonder, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, the jazz artists Archie Shepp and Roswell Rudd, and speakers Allen Ginsberg, Abbie Hoffman and his Chicago 8 co-defendants Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, Jerry Rubin, and Bobby Seale. Three days after the rally the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that the state's marijuana statutes were unconstitutional, and Sinclair was released from prison. These events inspired Ann Arbor’s annual pro-legalization Hash Bash, which continues to this day. They also contributed to the decriminalization of marijuana in Ann Arbor in 1972 – and when Sinclair’s case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, led to a landmark decision prohibiting the government's use of electronic surveillance without a warrant.
The enduring Michigan tradition of supporting marijuana law reform began with John Sinclair and has led most recently to the state’s voters approving medical marijuana in 2008. Without John Sinclair, there would not be a Medical Cannabis Cup in Detroit, which is why HIGH TIMES is proud to make him the fourth recipient of the Lester Grinspoon Lifetime Achievement Award.