Remembering Counterculture Icon and Poet John Sinclair, 1941-2024

John Sinclair, who advocated to legalize pot and end the Vietnam War, passed away on the morning of April 2 due to natural causes.
John Sinclair, performance poet and DJ at WCBN in Ann Arbor in 1969. Photo by Leni Sinclair.

Political activist, icon, and poet John Sinclair, 82, passed away of congestive heart failure Tuesday morning. Sinclair would have otherwise appeared at Ann Arbor Hash Bash in Michigan this Saturday to show support for pot reform.

Sinclair advocated to legalize pot as early as 1965, joining his mentors like Allen Ginsberg and Ed Sanders. Beyond his poetry, he managed MC5 (Motor City Five), worked on the radio, and co-founded a series of underground publications. He later co-founded the anti-racist White Panther Party, a faction of the Black Panther Party and became associated with the radical activist group the Yippies (Youth International Party). His anti-Vietnam War antics wound up catching the eye of the C.I.A., F.B.I., and other law enforcement groups.

The first few times I called John Sinclair and his ex-wife Leni Sinclair, I could detect a lingering general distrust of the media—which like many things, could be controlled by the government. High Times assigned me to interview Sinclair for the January, 2022 advocacy issue. It was just after the 50th anniversary of John Sinclair Freedom Rally the year earlier, which would lead to the annual Ann Arbor Hash Bash in Michigan. 

“I started advocating for the legalization of marijuana in Michigan in January 1965,” Sinclair told High Times in 2022. “Only Allen Ginsberg and Ed Sanders were active proponents of legalization then, as well as the lawyer in San Francisco who created the legal brief in support of legalization that I used in my court battle.”

We also reached out to Sinclair’s ex Leni for her priceless photography that documented the ‘60s and ‘70s. (Former High Times managing editor John Holmstrom also interviewed Sinclair for the July, 1988 issue of High Times, when the activist described lobbying for NORML and his activities in Ann Arbor.)

John Sinclair, smoking in 1969. Photo by Leni Sinclair.

Sinclair is remembered for being sentenced to ten years in prison—for two joints—in 1969 by Judge Robert Colombo. Federal law enforcement agents used a simple drug charge as a means to put away Sinclair, whom they considered a threat to national safety. Sinclair represented the militant, tactical arm of the counterculture movement during the summer of love. 

The older heads remember Woodstock for a few milestones: Janis Joplin arriving onto stage late with the Kozmic Blues Band, and blowing the audience’s minds. Or when The Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian announced a baby had been born. Or perhaps Jimi Hendrix’s iconic ending performance with the national anthem. Others remember a not-so-subtle shout-out to a pot prisoner who was being held for political motives: In the middle of The Who’s set on August 16, 1969, radical activist Abbie Hoffman yanked the mic and screamed “Free John Sinclair and all other political prisoners!!” to nearly half a million spectators at the festival before being politely shewed off-stage by Pete Townsend. (Hoffman was portrayed by Sacha Baron Cohen in the 2020 film The Trial of the Chicago Seven.)

The John Sinclair Freedom Rally and Ann Arbor Hash Bash

In 1971, Sinclair’s cruel sentence attracted support from some of the year’s biggest artists, who performed at his freedom rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The performers included John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger, David Peel, Allen Ginsberg and Ed Sanders, who all performed at the December 10,1971 original rally. The F.B.I. conducted surveillance of both Sinclair and Lennon, as well as others at the ‘71 rally. Sinclair said the F.B.I. surveillance was per then-President Nixon’s orders, and he wanted to form a future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court—William Reinquist. “Nixon made Trump look like Mahatma Gandhi!” Sinclair told High Times in 2021. 

Artists like Lennon were sickened by Sinclair’s sentence for a bit of weed. We ended up buying stunning photos—including shots of John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and Allen Ginsberg—from Sinclair’s ex Leni for the interview.

“It ain’t fair, John Sinclair. Hid in the stair for breathing air,” Lennon sings in the song “John Sinclair,” which marked a distinctive shift of tone into political territory and specifically, a pot prisoner. “He gave him ten for two. What else can Judge Colombo do?!” The lyrics were later changed to drop Colombo’s name.

“John Sinclair” was halfway in-between a blues banger and a political chant, as Lennon repeats “Got to set him free” over and over again.

“What a great person he was,” Sinclair, speaking of John Lennon. “He was busted for marijuana. They gave him an opportunity. He wanted to be hip. What was hip was politics and left-wing hippies. Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman and Ed Sanders. Paul Kransner. That was hipper than rock ‘n’ roll. They gave him an opportunity to do something really hip. He leaped at it. They paid their own expenses. It was amazing. Then Stevie Wonder called them and came down. He paid his own expenses as well, and for his band. It was a beautiful thing, man. If we did one of those every week, we would have a different country. That’s when the government really got on his ass.”

Since the ‘80s, Sinclair has written the column “Free the Weed.” In 2004, he launched the The John Sinclair Foundation in Amsterdam. On December 1, 2019, the first day of recreational sales in Michigan, Sinclair bought about $150 worth of legal pot.

Is Sinclair alone in getting over ten years for two joints? There’s a Black man in Louisiana, Bernard Noble, who in 2011 was originally sentenced to 13 years for about two joints’ worth of pot, under Louisiana’s cruel “at hard labor” law.

Sinclair’s legacy demonstrates the fight against the establishment  to legalize pot and establish peace.

  1. Free John Sinclair
    We have to totally look up too and gain confidence ….to be as those of us (John Sinclair, Socrates, Jesus, Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King) and thousands of others through the ages who stood up to the powerful for what they believe was wrong or a crime against humanity. And history has proved them right!!!
    …Putting someone in jail for archaic man made laws… for the personal consumption of the marijuana leaf… is like putting someone in jail because they have bad breath for eating an onion.
    …Who decides what’s right for you? But you!
    There are many levels of consciousness going on in your cerebral cortex. Be it from tea, coffee, a babe Ruth candy bar, alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana, mushroom and other substances man made and not.
    ….Should we not be allowed to get to know all the nooks and cranes of our own minds? We know we are on a planet and we know the planet is part of the universe. So as an apple tree apples and the Earth peoples. Lets look and discover where we come from in our own peculiar way.
    …I attended the John Sinclair concert in 1971 with my brother and I can only say it was a powerful life experience to see, feel and be a part of this great movement in American history. It demonstrates the power of freedom to be what you want to be and how you want to live your life. Without infringing on others beliefs.
    Thank you John your voice will be missed …but we will carry the torch!!!
    brother Macdaddy

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