Marijuana enthusiasts pack Diag

BY CHARLES GREGG-GEIST
Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 6, 2008

Even hip-hop music blasting from three-foot speakers couldn't stop the accordion player. Though most of his lyrics were incomprehensible, the people who clustered around him on the Diag could easily understand the chorus.

"Free the weed!" he sang raucously, accompanied by two men on miniature guitars.

The trio stopped its music only when John Sinclair, a bearded man wearing an old jacket, Birkenstocks and high white socks stepped before a microphone on the steps of the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library.

The poet and musician was one reason almost 2,000 people packed onto the Diag Saturday for the 37th annual Hash Bash.

It was Sinclair's arrest in 1969 that brought together John Lennon, Allen Ginsberg and Stevie Wonder, among others, at the 1971 "Free John Now Rally" at Crisler Arena. For many, Sinclair's return was a highlight of the event.

"I think it's really cool that he's here," LSA sophomore Patrick Morris said.

Saturday's warmth and sunshine brought out people of all ages in greater numbers than last year, when snow flurries fell on the rally. Hash Bashers ranged from a man dressed as Uncle Sam holding an enormous cardboard cutout of a marijuana leaf to a little girl who sat on her father's shoulders waving to Sinclair as he spoke.

Sinclair's appearance was a relief to Hash Bash organizers, who thought until a few weeks ago they might not have access to amplification because an unknown student group had reserved the entire Diag. Organizers said the University's refusal to disclose which group had reserved the space was an effort to push Hash Bash off campus, while Diag Administrator Jaden Felix said it was against University's to release information about Diag reservations.

About a week ago, they discovered through Facebook.com that Fighting Obstacles Knowing Ultimate Success, a multicultural arts organization, was planning its year-end event for Saturday, said Adam Brook, the longtime Hash Bash emcee. He said members of the University chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws tried to contact the organizers but received no response.

F.O.K.U.S. co-founder Alma Davila-Toro, a recent University alum, said she read about Hash Bash's scheduling problems last week and decided that letting Sinclair speak was the best way to ensure that both crowds were pleased with their respective events.

Because of the scheduling conflict, only F.O.K.U.S. had the right to use the amplification. That problem was solved, though, when Davila-Toro included two of Hash Bash's main speakers into her group's lineup.

Asked how the two groups coordinated the effort, Davila-Toro smiled.

"We invited an artist named John Sinclair to read poetry," she said.

Brook, who introduced Sinclair at the event, was quick to thank F.O.K.U.S. for the invitation.

"F.O.K.U.S. has done nothing but help us," he told the crowd. "It's the University that has tried to screw Hash Bash."

Sinclair began his speech by thanking the group for "resolving a sticky situation." He then spoke for about 10 minutes on the merits of cannabis use before reading a poem that sang the praises of the weed he enjoyed during a visit to Amsterdam, where the 66-year-old currently resides.

To allow F.O.K.U.S. to continue its program, Brook directed the Hash Bashers to Monroe Street at about 12:30 p.m., where the second part of their event traditionally takes place.

Most of the crowd dissipated in a few minutes, leaving about 100 people on the Diag as a band took over for Sinclair.

Another band started playing in a portable band shell erected in the street in front of the restaurant Dominick's near the Law Quad. Nearby, vendors hawked Hash Bash T-shirts and drug paraphernalia.

Police cars blocked off the ends of the street, leaving it to a crowd of people who openly smoked marijuana. On the grass across the street, a drum circle competed against the band, while women in earth-tone dresses gyrated in hula hoops.

Young men in loose white robes and cross-trainers later joined the drummers, chanting and dancing. One wore a red jacket that read, "Chant Hare Krishna and be happy."

Bhakta Joseph, a University alum, came to the event on behalf of his temple and distributed Hare Krishna literature to Hash Bashers. He said the devotees came to the event because they saw "a lot of wonderful people here doing a lot of wonderful things."

"We're here not only to enjoy the atmosphere, but to educate people on how to, for lack of better words, stay high," he said.