On January 25, 2016, Michael Kennedy—husband, father, grandfather, and legal crusader for the rights of oppressed people the world over—suffered one of the few defeats of his storied career when he lost his battle with cancer. He was 78 years old.
In 1974, Michael Kennedy was handpicked by this magazine’s founder, Tom Forçade, to be its first line of defense against the dark forces that were certain to line up against a publication whose stated mission was to confront popular misconceptions regarding illegal drugs. For 42 years, Michael Kennedy provided HIGH TIMES an impenetrable legal shield that has allowed us the freedom to expose the lies behind the War on Drugs, and to recover the truth about the cannabis plant that generations of opportunistic politicians, morally-bankrupt enforcement agencies, and fact-challenged scientists have attempted to expunge from the public record. He was our mentor, our counselor, and our friend, and his passing has left us with a sadness we can scarcely express.
Michael John Kennedy was born in Spokane, Washington on March 23, 1937—the same year the racist Marihuana Tax Act championed by Harry Anslinger Jr. effectively outlawed cannabis. Relocating to California’s San Joaquin Valley 10 years later, he eventually graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, Hastings, College of Law. He was admitted to the bar in 1963, but before he could settle into his new career, he was drafted into the Army and sent to Fort Benning for basic training. While it is true that the Army made a soldier out of Kennedy, they soon found themselves the target of his first declared—albeit rhetorical—war. During his two years of service at Fort Knox, he was an outspoken opponent of the “police action” in Vietnam, and aired his views publicly on the subject while wearing his uniform. Upon his discharge, he went to work for the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, a division of the American Civil Liberties Union.
His first drug case, that of Pfc. Bruce “Gypsy” Peterson, offered him the opportunity to battle in court two of his most despised and entrenched foes—the U.S. military and marijuana prohibition. Peterson was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, and had founded an underground paper for GIs, Fatigue Press. For his outspoken views, the Army waged a vendetta against Peterson, sentencing him to eight years in Leavenworth’s military prison for what was reported at the time to be .006 grams of pot that had been vacuumed out of his automobile. Kennedy got the conviction overturned on the grounds that the search was illegal, due process of law had been violated in the course of the trial, and eight years’ imprisonment for such an insignificant amount of pot was tantamount to “cruel and unusual punishment.”
“I’ve been an opponent of this government almost as long as I’ve had a familiarity with it,” Kennedy said in a 1975 interview with HIGH TIMES. “The reason that I’m interested in defending people charged with dope is because I want to undercut the government’s political base and their use of dope as a phony enemy. The enemy’s not dope. The enemy’s the goddamn police force.”
In 1968, Michael Kennedy married his life partner Eleanora in a service performed by one of his clients, a Protestant minister and conscientious objector to the Vietnam war who went to jail the next day. (They were married again in a Catholic Church, Saint Patrick's Cathedral, in front of dozens of friends and family members in 2010.)
As the 1960s—literally—bled into the 1970s, Michael Kennedy’s client list read like a roll call of the era’s radical psychedelic visionaries and political outlaws—Timothy Leary, Nick Sands, Rennie Davis of the Chicago 8, Michael Randall of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, Huey Newton of the Black Panthers, Los Siete de la Raza, the Weather Underground, and the American Indian Movement (to name a few.)
True to his namesake, St. Michael the Archangel, (and believe me, Kennedy would be the first to offer a loud guffaw at the mention of his name in such beatific company) he was a courtroom slayer of statutory evils, defending those whose dedication to humanistic causes often clashed with the facile veneer of postwar American values.
Kennedy’s dedication to justice put him in direct conflict with the authorities on several occasions. During the Sunset Strip riots in Los Angeles in 1966, he confronted police who were indecently frisking a young female hippie and was arrested. He was jailed, briefly, for contempt of court during a senate House of Un-American Activities probe into the 1968 Chicago police riot for staging a silent, "standing protest" of the proceedings along with Jerry Rubin, Rennie Davis and other “conspirators” not likely to be considered for that year’s Jaycee award. Admonished by Rep. Richard Ichord of Missouri for his insolence, Kennedy shouted, “The Constitution is being raped in this armed camp in congress!”
He defended Rennie Davis in the Chicago 8 conspiracy trial, and described the Yippie legal planning sessions to HIGH TIMES in a memorial he wrote for Abbie Hoffman after his death:
“The first time I met Abbie was in a hotel room in the fall of 1967. He had a pot of honey laced with acid. We were all supposed to take a big finger full of honey and sit down and formulate a strategy, and that’s what we did.”
In 1973, the DEA raided Kennedy’s rented house in Laguna Beach, ostensibly to arrest his client, acid chemist Michael Randall of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, on a passport beef. The narcs pointed a pistol directly in his face and ultimately charged Kennedy with the misdemeanor crime of using obscenity in the presence of women and children. He beat the rap and told an interviewer in 1977 that, “The only women there were Mrs. Kennedy and Mrs. Randall, and the only children I could perceive were the narcs themselves.”
Perhaps the most audacious story of the extremes Kennedy would go to for his radical clients came from Timothy Leary himself, when he testified (snitched?) before several grand juries that Michael Kennedy was the mastermind behind Leary’s own prison break, financed by the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, and carried out by members of the Weather Underground. Kennedy was never indicted.
In the 1980s, Michael Kennedy was a fierce opponent of America’s military intervention in Nicaragua. He was a legal aid, friend, and supporter of the Sandinistas in their fight against the Contras—Ronald Reagan’s murderous CIA-backed “Freedom Fighters.” He later became Special Advisor to the President of the United Nations General Assembly when a Sandinista, Father Miguel D'Escoto, was elected to the post in 2009.
Despite his obvious political leanings, Kennedy told HIGH TIMES in 1988, “I’ve never considered myself a radical. I consider people like Reagan a radical. I’m actually the middle-of-the-road. I think the best way to describe me would be as a trial lawyer specializing in Constitutional defenses.”
In 2012, Michael Kennedy enlisted Beth Curtis, founder of the website lifeforpot.com, his law partner David Holland, and myself, to conceive of a project that would spare five elderly, non-violent marijuana prisoners—John Knock, Paul Free, Larry Ronald Duke, William “Gringo Billy” Dekle, and Charles “Fred” Cundiff—the indignity of dying in prison for the supposed crime of conspiring to distribute large amounts of marijuana to the citizens of the United States of America. Since all of the inmates were serving life without parole and had exhausted their appeals, it was decided that we would draft a petition for executive clemency on their behalf.
Addressing President Barack Obama, Kennedy wrote, “The most profound societal loss stemming from the Drug War is the criminalization of huge segments of our country, as well as the corruption and cynical disrespect for all law and authority that bad law and policy—e.g., marijuana prohibition—have generated in rending the fabric of our society. The corruption, moral decay, and alienation caused by this unholy war have reduced our country’s moral vibrancy more than all of our real wars put together […]
“As you approach your second term, Mr. President, these five men and their families ask you to save their lives as only you can. We respectfully say to you without hesitation or equivocation that no conceivable good for our country can come from causing these marijuana miscreants to die in prison.”
At the time, it was unfathomable to most people that there were prisoners serving life sentences for non-violent marijuana-only offenses. Since the petition was filed, Larry Duke has been granted compassionate release, and the sentences of Charles Cundiff and “Gringo” Billy Dekle have been commuted. The fight continues for John Knock and Paul Free.
“Tom [Forçade’s] vision for HIGH TIMES was simple,” Kennedy explained in a 2014 essay. “Marijuana prohibition had within it the seeds of its own destruction: the government had no power over the demand for marijuana, or its means of production, as this God-blessed plant could be grown anywhere, by anyone. Imagine: an uncontrollable supply—Adam Smith’s wet dream! Of course, it took us 40 years to reach the present tipping point, because the government was willing to waste over three trillion of our tax dollars on its folly, fill our prisons with nonviolent, decent people, and wreck the economies of our states, before sufficient numbers of voters said ‘Enough!’ […]
“Tom figured that if HIGH TIMES taught the world how to grow marijuana, and supplied it with the truth about the harmlessness and the many benefits of this amazing plant, prohibition would fall due to its own grotesque weight. As Tom’s friend and lawyer, I bought into this mission absolutely, little knowing that it would take 40 years before the onset of the end of prohibition. I am grateful beyond measure that I have lived to see these days of regulation trumping prohibition.”
Michael Kennedy is survived by his wife Eleanora, his children Lisamarie Kennedy, Scott Hamilton Kennedy and his wife Catherine Borek, Anna Kennedy Safir and her husband Michael Safir, and his grandchildren Matthew, Nicky, Tessa, Eden, and Ava.
All of us at HIGH TIMES wish to thank Michael Kennedy for showing us, by example, that it is possible for anyone with a brain, a big mouth, and two human hands, to pierce seemingly indomitable darkness and restore light to the world.