The war to decriminalize the dank has been waged by stoners for some 50 years now, and as the drive to legalize has intensified in recent years, the number of epic cannabis stunts has likewise increased.
Yet throughout the last half-century of cannabis championing, it seems there’s always been exploits and events to promote pot, engineered by celebrities, activists and anonymous agents, all culminating in the recent New Year’s event when a certain iconic sign suddenly appeared to be in an “altered state”—and for the better, we think.
We’ll cover that—and a lot more—in our retrospect of the 10 greatest pot publicity stunts. And when applicable, we’ll also have the latest updates on some of the more recent cannabis capers.
1. John Sinclair Freedom Rally
Getting John Lennon to perform one of his very few live concerts in his post-Beatles career rockets this pot publicity stunt to number one on our list. Held December 10, 1971 at the University of Michigan’s indoor Crisler Center, the John Sinclair event was more than a concert and more than a rally. This pot publicity stunt actually freed a man from prison during the Nixon administration’s hostile anti-weed atmosphere.
Sinclair, a jazz-poet who embraced radical politics and was also the manager of Detroit’s pre-punk pioneers MC5, was busted in 1969 for giving away two joints to an undercover cop and sentenced to 10 years in state prison. There was a growing swell of support for Sinclair, climaxing in the Freedom Rally, featuring numerous musicians like Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger and speakers of the day such as Bobby Seale, Jerry Rubin and Allen Ginsberg.
But it was the appearance of John Lennon, along with Yoko Ono, that was the highlight of the rally, with Lennon performing four tunes acoustically, including the song he penned detailing the pot prisoner’s plight entitled, aptly enough, “John Sinclair.” The event went so long that Lennon and Ono didn’t appear on stage until 3 a.m. to close the show. The emotional highlight of the entire event was a live call from Sinclair in prison, which was broadcasted to the audience.
Most importantly, the freedom rally was successful; three days later, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled Sinclair be released from custody. In a way, the Sinclair event was the original pot rally, and indeed, it sparked the annual “Hash Bash,” held the first Saturday of April at the University of Michigan. These days, John Sinclair continues his art and activism from his home in Amsterdam
2. HOLLYWEED—A 40-Year Tradition
Everything changes on New Year’s Day. On January 1 of this new year, Los Angelenos awoke to find their beloved classic giant landmark overlooking Tinsel Town had been transformed overnight, as if by special effects movie studio wizardry from “HOLLYWOOD” TO “HOLLYWEED.” Sadly, by 10:45 that morning, the tarps used to rename the sign had been removed, and all was back to normal in “Hollyweird.”
The stunt was fitting, given that 2017 marks the first full year of recreational legalization in La-La-Land—along with the rest of California—after Prop 64 passed in November.
However, this was not the first time the 45-foot tall, 350-foot-long sign has been modified to hype marijuana—for on January 1, 1976, 41 years earlier, the sign was also changed to “HOLLYWEED” by Daniel N. Finegood. Finegood was commemorating the first year of pot decriminalization in California with his grand-scale art project that also earned him an “A” at Cal-State Northridge, as reported by Vanity Fair.
The creator of the sequel to Finegood’s HOLLYWEED sign is Zachary Fernandez, 30, who turned himself in to police on January 9. Fernandez was charged with misdemeanor trespassing for his illegal art installation.
But it appears to all be worth it, as reported to KSBY-6, Fernandez’ next project is with cannabis king Tommy Chong (more on him later in this list).
On the February 12, 2016 edition of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, the host smoked a joint on-air, with Maher cleverly quipping, “I use medical marijuana because my third eye has glaucoma.” He shared the doobie with guests, including rapper/pot promoter Killer Mike.
Maher claimed that he was the first to smoke real reefer on-air, confirming on Twitter that the pot he puffed on his show was pure. However, Maher is not the first person to smoke actual weed on TV. The Reverend Bud Green—AKA Norm Lebow, founder of the Religion of Drugs—first smoked pot joints on virtually all the early-to-mid 1990’s daytime TV talk shows, including Joan Rivers, Geraldo and Jerry Springer. In fact, yours truly, appearing with Rev. Bud Green on the syndicated Hot Seat TV show in 1991, also smoked a bong hit of the real deal during our appearance promoting hemp over oil while protesting the U.S. invasion of Iraq during the Gulf War. So no, Bill, you are not the original stoner to get high on TV, but we’re glad to see you’re carrying on the tradition!
4. Woody Harrelson Plants Hemp Seeds
On June 1, 1996, the True Detective star was arrested in Lee County, Kentucky after planting four hemp seeds in a symbolic gesture to challenge the law that insanely criminalized hemp, which has thousands of practical applications, from fuel and food to fiber and medicine.
Harrelson made no attempt to conceal his efforts, on the contrary, he informed the Lee County Sheriff’s Department of his intentions and arrived at the scene accompanied by his attorney, former Kentucky governor Louie B. Nunn, a CNN camera crew, and of course, HIGH TIMES magazine, represented by our very own Dan Skye. After Harrelson planted the quartet of seeds, he was immediately arrested for cannabis cultivation and freed later that day after posting $200 bail. With the assistance of Nunn, Harrelson was acquitted of the growing charges by a jury in 25 minutes.
Even though hemp seeds are non-psychoactive, Woody was busted because 20 years ago, Kentucky law did not distinguish between hemp and marijuana. Industrial hemp cultivation for research purposes was legalized in Kentucky in 2013. At the time of the stunt in the mid-1990’s, Harrelson was an extremely hot actor, having won high praise for his roles in Natural Born Killers and The People vs Larry Flynt, which added an extra edge to Harrelson’s “pro-seedings.”
In the two decades since his seed planting arrest, Harrelson has continued to speak out for legal hemp and cannabis, appearing in pro-pot documentaries and even attempting to operate a medicinal marijuana dispensary in Hawaii, though his application was rejected in 2016 for undisclosed reasons
On March 2, 2015, at 4:45 p.m.—just as rush-hour was heating up—drivers on the campus of the University of Montana in Missoula received unusual traffic instructions from a portable digital sign hacked to read: SMOKE WEED EVERYDAY.
According to local MTN News, the message was visible for 20 to 30 minutes until operators could reprogram the sign’s software and change the password. The Missoulian contacted the sign’s owner, Professional Construction Services, and surprise, surprise, president Wade Sellers confirmed that the company had nothing to do with the marijuana message and that they don’t advocate legalization. The pro-pot sign hacker remains unidentified but much appreciated.
In the digital hacking age we’re now all living in, such stealth activism is becoming more commonplace, and in fact, the Montana sign-hacking was not the first. In 2013, for example, a traffic sign in Montgomery County (Maryland) was likewise hacked with the same “Smoke Weed Everyday” message.
6. Legal Weed at the Super Bowl
At Super Bowl XXX, held in January 1996 in Tempe, Arizona, the late great hemp activist Richard Davis (who passed away in 2014), openly sold marijuana during the week-long festivities preceding the big game. The unlikely scenario originated from a 1983 Arizona law intended to trap and punish pot dealers by creating state sanctioned “marijuana tax stamps,” which to legally purchase, one had to first obtain a “cannabis dealer’s license.” This bizarre strategy backfired on the powers-that-be when an Arizona judge ruled in a case involving a NORML activist that if a person had legally purchased the stamps from the state by holding a dealer’s license, they couldn’t be prosecuted for possession. This loophole was exploited by stoners both in the desert and from out-of-state, including Davis, who drove around the West in his traveling “Hemp Museum,” a weed-on-wheels traveling tribute to the miracle plant. Across the street from Sun Devil Stadium, Davis sold ounces, as well as gram bags, during Super Bowl XXX week.
Once again, our own Dan Skye was on the scene as this unique slice of history unfolded. Davis, clearly being targeted by undercover narcs, was arrested on the Friday before the game, mere minutes after Skye had borrowed a couple of gram bags to photograph for the related HIGH TIMES article. Three months later, Arizona repealed the tax stamp law, but Davis’ Super Bowl stunt endures eternally.
7. Cannabis Queen Charlo Greene Quits On-Air
On September 21, 2014 came one of the most memorable job resignations in history and a jaw-dropping pot publicity stunt of the highest order, when Charlo Greene grabbed global headlines by literally walking away from her job live on-the-air as a news reporter at Anchorage station KTVA CBS 11. Greene was reporting on a medical marijuana dispensary when it was revealed that she herself was the actual owner of the Alaska Cannabis Club.
Declaring, “as for this [reporter] job, not that I have a choice, but fuck it, I quit,” Greene then strolled off-camera and was gone from KTVA forever. The news director cut immediately—and hilariously—to a shocked and flabbergasted KTVA news anchor who wasn’t sure what to say.
The day after she quit, the Alaska Cannabis Club posted a note on its Facebook page stating Greene resigned to publicly announce that she was redirecting her energies toward ending the nation’s failed drug policy and supporting cannabis reform. Alaska’s Measure 2 was passed by voters in November 2014, legalizing recreational weed statewide.
In October 2014, at our 40th anniversary party in New York, HIGH TIMES bestowed upon Greene its “Courage in Media” award. However, since those heady days, Greene—whose real name is Charlene Egbe—has fallen on harder times. Despite pot being legal, official regulations and licensing had not been established, giving Anchorage Police justification for raiding Greene’s weed club in March 2015, seizing boxes and bags of evidence. As reported by the Guardian in September 2016, the Alaska attorney general’s office confirmed Greene is facing 14 offenses for a possible 54 years in prison, and we wish her the best of luck with her legal struggles.
Marijuana-themed billboards are now old hat, but in the pre-legalization days in Colorado. they served a higher purpose—with the most prominent being the July 2012 digital billboard that actually used an endorsement for legalizing weed from none other than Christian conservative icon Pat Robertson. The ad was located on I-70 in Grand Junction, Colorado and read: “Pat Robertson would vote YES on 64. Will you?”
The ad was referring to Robertson’s comments during a March 2012 episode of his long-running religious program the 700 Club, in which he advocated the cessation of imprisoning people for pot. Later, Robertson declared the War on Drugs a “failure” to the New York Times.
The Pat Robertson billboard was the third of its kind in Colorado, the first being a “pot is superior to alcohol” ad appearing in April 2012, with the second billboard grabbing some media spotlight because it was positioned across the street from Mile High Stadium, home of the wholesome Denver Broncos. All of those pro-bud billboards were certainly no deterrent in terms of the publicity they generated, and likely raised awareness of the issue, helping to catapult Amendment 64 to groundbreaking victory in November 2012, legalizing recreational pot in Colorado.
Before HIGH TIMES came along, perhaps the biggest pop culture promoters of pot were the groundbreaking ganja comedy team of Cheech & Chong. Back in the ‘70s people used album covers to spread out pot for joint rolling. Now envision an album that actually was the rolling papers!
For their 1972 album Big Bambu, Cheech and Chong outdid themselves by actually including a giant rolling paper inside each copy of the album. Ah, the virtues of vinyl. Big Bambu was a specific type of rolling paper from the Bambu brand—a company that originated in Spain printing copies of the Bible! The Cheech & Chong LP was designed by the legendary Ernie Cefalu, as the Big Bambu gatefold cover was intended to look like rolling paper packaging, with the actual “papes” tucked inside. Big Bambu also features the only purely spoken word single to hit the old-school Top 40 chart—the classic C&C aural skit mocking a typical dictatorial school nun in the classic, “Sister Mary Elephant.” These days, copies of Big Bambu with the rolling papers still intact will run you $35 and up on the interwebs.
In March of last year, Canadian meta-activist Dana Larsen launched his campaign to give away one million seeds across the Great White North dubbed “Overgrow Canada: The Free Marijuana Tour.” As reported by BuzzFeed, photographic evidence confirmed budding pot plants growing right out in the open, turning up in Canadian cities like Toronto and Calgary. Larsen deployed a team of 40 volunteers to sort and package the seeds, which were both mailed to recipients and delivered in person as Larsen trekked across Canada.
The goal was to have as many seeds planted as possible on both private and public property as acts of civil disobedience against Canada’s pot prohibition laws. Overgrow Canada more than doubled their projected goal, giving away an impressive 2.3 million seeds and making the Great White North that much greener.
Not nearly on the same level, but one year prior to Larsen’s campaign got underway, hundreds of people waited in line in our nation’s capital for a free seed giveaway by the D.C. Cannabis Campaign in March 2015.
This millennial trend of distributing the dank will continue with the upcoming planned ganja giveaway of 4,200 joints by activist group DCMJ during Donald Trump’s January 20th inauguration. If it goes off as planned, the Trump stunt will continue the tradition of pot publicity that, in all its myriad forms, has promoted awareness and understanding towards the persecuted plant.
Related: Is It Still Civil Disobedience If It Makes A Profit?
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