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Explained: Why are Ann Arbor's Pot Laws So Lax?

BY NICOLE WATKINS
Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 17, 2008

Across the nation, marijuana use and possession is a criminal offense with daunting consequences. Outside of the boundaries of Ann Arbor, carrying just the slightest amount of the popular drug results in expensive fines and possible jail time. But inside the city limits marijuana laws are much more lenient.

Although federal law charges $1,000 in fines and up to one year of jail time for first offenses, first-time marijuana possession of less than two ounces is only a civil infraction - rather than misdemeanor or felony - and carries a $25 fine with no jail time or probation in Ann Arbor.

Ann Arbor boasts some of the most lax pot laws in the nation, leaving some wondering why.

Local historian Wystan Stevens said it all goes back to the legacy of John Sinclair in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

John Sinclair, a poet and cultural activist living in Ann Arbor, was arrested and imprisoned for attempting to sell two joints to two undercover cops in July 1969. Sinclair was sentenced to ten years in a state prison.

Sinclair's strict punishment provoked the "Free John Now Rally." On Dec. 10, 1971, John Lennon and Yoko Ono led upwards of 15,000 supporters to rise against Sinclair's sentence at Crisler Arena.

Three days after the uproar, the Michigan Supreme Court ordered Sinclair, after just 29 months in jail, to be released under the claim that Michigan's marijuana statutes were unconstitutional and void.

Sinclair also sparked a local tradition: Hash Bash.

On April 1, 1972, the "first of the Hash Bashes was held to publicize Sinclair's plight," Stevens said. "Later on that year, the Ann Arbor City Council overrode the state laws, making marijuana possession a $5 fine."

Hash Bash has been an annual event ever since.

In 1990, the fine was raised to $25 after mayor Gerald Jernigan called the initial law "an embarrassment." Second offenses carry a $50 fine and third offenses are $100. No marijuana offense in Ann Arbor fines more than $100.

Don't go lighting up just yet, though. Because the University is a state institution, much stricter state laws apply to on-campus offenders. State law classifies marijuana use as a misdemeanor punishable with a $100 fine and up to 90 days in jail.


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