The 49th annual Hash Bash, Ann Arbor’s annual cannabis rights event, took place online Saturday afternoon via livestream due to the state of Michigan’s stay-at-home order amid the coronavirus outbreak. 

Michigan’s statewide COVID-19 cases surpassed 14,000 by Saturday. Nick Zettell, co-founder of MI Legalize and leader of the Hash Bash Committee, said the group quickly searched for alternative platforms to host the event as the spread of the virus increased in the past few weeks.

“Hash Bash is so unique and so steeped in tradition that something more than just a postponement had to be done,” Zettell said.

The Hash Bash committee hopes to hold an in-person event in Ann Arbor during the fall, but for the time being cannabis activists and enthusiasts alike used an online forum to discuss the progress achieved within the state of Michigan on marijuana laws and the remaining work to federally legalize cannabis. 

While the famous pro-marijuana gathering traditionally is held at the Diag of the University of Michigan, patrons tuned in to and to hear this year’s lineup of speakers and performers. 

Zettell opened the livestreamed event with a speech about the history of the fight for legalization in Michigan, the movement’s plans for the future and commentary on the present moment the world is collectively experiencing during the global pandemic. 

“It’s here in unexpected, unprecedented and really uncertain times that we gather today in neither celebration nor embrace, but in honor and protest,” Zettell said. “We’re honoring those who have lost their lives and fought for the rights of cannabis users and the liberation of the plant.”

Jamie Lowell, a long-time cannabis rights activist and Hash Bash Committee member, served as host for the livestream Saturday. Lowell has long been involved in the Michigan cannabis community, helping to open one of the state’s first dispensaries in Ypsilanti and hosting two marijuana-themed podcasts. Lowell said the production team for one of those podcasts, “Planet Green Trees,” first suggested the possibility of holding an online Hash Bash. 

“We started doing this 10 or 11 days from start to finish of when we’ll go on the air,” Lowell said. “So between the production and all the technical prowess needed, it’s been difficult but seems like it’s all coming together and there’s so much enthusiasm — people think that this is a good idea and a good way to go.”

Hash Bash organizers said an online platform provided the opportunity to include a wider, more diverse array of participants ranging from Michigan politicians to renowned film actors to local musicians.  

Michigan state Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, joined the broadcast to share the work he has been advocating for in the state legislature. Legislation to deschedule cannabis in state law, increase marijuana plant counts and expand criminal justice reform were part of a shortlist of policies Rabhi said he is working to accomplish. 

“We freed the weed, now we have to free the people,” said Rabhi. “There’s a lot of work that we have to do there. We are working really hard to change our criminal justice framework in the state of Michigan to clear those criminal records.”

While the digital event largely surrounded honoring the work of past and present cannabis activists, the widespread concerns of COVID-19 remained noticeably in the consciousness of the livestream’s hosts and guest speakers.

“It’s still in the spirit of being safe and the message of the state is that this is serious and we can’t just go out and spread this thing around, so we have to lock it down,” Lowell said. “To keep as many people in as possible is part of the plan.”

Zettell concurred with Lowell’s sentiment and also reminded the audience of cannabis activism’s united mission and unfinished work. 

“We’re all experiencing this together. There’s no polarization necessarily and, on top of that, a lot of us have been in this fight for so long,” Zettell said. “Hash Bash has always served as a great time to set aside differences and focus on a common goal and statement and work toward policy reform and an exhibition of civil disobedience.”

Rabhi contextualized the issue of mass incarceration due to cannabis possession around the current COVID-19 pandemic, arguing that individuals who were charged for marijuana usage should be released from jail to return to safer, less at-risk environments. 

“This is a public health crisis and this is where I think the public health crisis meets the demand that we change our criminal justice system around the war on drugs and the continued criminalization of cannabis,” Rabhi said. 

U.S. Rep Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., briefly joined the livestream and said criminal justice reform must be prioritized to protect inmates incarcerated for cannabis possession. 

Following several interviews with cannabis activists and local politicians, the livestream transitioned to feature performances from musicians, comedians and other interviews with entertainers. 

Tommy Chong, actor and comedian of the Grammy award-winning comedy duo Cheech and Chong, made a brief cameo on the broadcast to give updates on his life during the pandemic and share stories from Hash Bash events he attended in Ann Arbor during the 1970s. 

Tom Wall of the Michigan-based psychedelic punk band Cosmic Knot joined the livestream to put on a unique guitar performance. Wall was accompanied by a cannabis plant that was able to play music through electrodes that registered electromagnetic pulses in the plant’s roots and leaves and converted those measurements to MIDI notes. Wall then proceeded to jam along with the notes created by the plant. 

Following the performances, Zettell and others continued to promote the end of federal and global prohibition of marijuana, improve the accessibility and affordability of cannabis-based products, expunge records and prevent the corporatization of the industry. 

“These are things we’ve been fighting against and those are some of the things that we see as a sort of threat to the way we envision an ideal cannabis industry,” Zettell said. 

As the Hash Bash livestream came to a close on Saturday afternoon, event organizers imparted a message of hope for the future of the marijuana industry, gratitude for the work of past cannabis activists and prayers to the health and safety of the public during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. 

“We wanted to be able to contribute to the longevity and the history of this by still acknowledging the fight that it’s taken to get here, the fighters who have been there along the way and advocate for improving our current laws,” Zettell said.

Reporter Chris Sullivan can be reached at

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