For 44th year, marijuana advocates assemble in Ann Arbor

By Isobel Futter, Daily Staff Reporter
and Samiha Matin, Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 5, 2015

Marijuana smoke, along with screams of, “Free the weed, end the war,” filled the air Saturday as the 44th annual Hash Bash unfolded on the Diag and Monroe Street. The event lit up at “high noon.”

Speakers included State Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor), Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, City Councilmember Sabra Briere (D—Ward 1) and acclaimed comedian and activist Tommy Chong.

Since its inception, Hash Bash has been an outlet for advocates of marijuana decriminalization. This held true Saturday. Charlie Strachbein, who coordinates the accompanying Monroe Street Fair, estimated that 9,000 people were in attendance. One of these attendees was the event’s originator: John Sinclair.

The first Hash Bash was held in 1972 as a response to the 1969 arrest of activist and poet John Sinclair, who gave two marijuana joints to an undercover officer. Sinclair was sentenced to 10 years in prison, which sparked the “John Sinclair Freedom Rally” in December 1971.

Held in the University’s Crisler Arena, the event featured a host of celebrities, including John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Stevie Wonder and Allen Ginsberg who came to protest for Sinclair’s release. The Michigan Supreme Court eventually overturned the law under which Sinclair had been convicted, and by the following April, the first Hash Bash was underway.

“I started this and I’m still alive, so I like to come back,” Sinclair said. “This was all a little idea me and some other people had 44 years ago … One day, I’ll be here and we’ll be celebrating legalization in Michigan.”

A large emphasis at this year’s Hash Bash was promoting a 2016 state ballot measure that would legalize cannabis and hemp use in Michigan. It also aims to remove past criminal convictions for the possession of marijuana.

In Ann Arbor, marijuana possession is a civil infraction — offenders can incur a $25 fine. However, smoking marijuana on a state university campus is a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine up to $2,000 and up to one year in prison.

The Ann Arbor Police Department and University Police patrolled the event and watched for any emergencies. Despite the fact that the usage of marijuana was illegal, and very prominent at Hash Bash, only three arrests were made.

To Sinclair, addressing marijuana use as a criminal offense is a laughing matter.

“Crime?” Sinclair said. “What kind of crime do they have here? I don’t worry about it, I’m going to get high anyways.”

The Michigan Comprehensive Cannabis Law Reform Initiative Committee — which goes by MI Legalize — helped to both organize the event and book local speakers. The organization is an advocate of the pending legalization ballot measure.

“We have been working hard to provide you with a uniquely thought-provoking and entirely radical rally,” said Nicholas Zettell, Hash Bash Director of Operations. “We’ve selected accomplished and knowledgeable figures within this diverse and colorful community to provide you with a savory blend of community leaders, elected officials, patients and much more.”

Irwin, one of the elected officials, is the state representative responsible for drafting the pending 2016 ballot measure. He believes it is unethical to continue criminalizing individuals for smoking marijuana.

“You’ve heard a little bit about how cannabis is a gateway drug, and I’m here to tell you folks it is a gateway drug to a real bad time with law enforcement,” Irwin said in a speech to Hash Bash attendees. “It’s a gateway to a criminal record; it’s a gateway to a misdemeanor or a felony; it’s a gateway to losing your financial aid. It’s a gateway to hundreds of millions of dollars wasted of taxpayer money arresting, trying, prosecuting and incarcerating marijuana users.”

Bernero joined Irwin in saying that the criminalization of marijuana is damaging to the state of Michigan.

“The war on marijuana has been a war on the good and decent citizens of Michigan and America,” Bernero said. “It is a war against our children, a war against our communities, especially communities of color. The casualties from the war on pot are everywhere. I’ve heard you say, ‘free the weed,’ but I’ve come to realize that ‘free the weed’ means ‘free the people.’ ”

In a phone interview prior to the event, Briere said it is important to remember that Hash Bash promotes activism and political commentary, not civil disobedience.

“It’s a collection of speeches and live music where people from different areas collaborate to focus on reforming the marijuana laws of Michigan,” Briere said.

Though Irwin, Bernero and Briere all spoke about the legalization of marijuana at Saturday’s event, there were many different ideas raised throughout the afternoon’s speeches.

Chong called for the elimination of the Drug Enforcement Administration, claiming that marijuana advocates were winning the war on drugs.

“It started as a protest, but it’s turning into a celebration because we are winning,” he said. “What we’re having today is the celebration of the greatest plant known to man. All pot use is medical.”

Like Chong, many speakers shared anecdotes about how marijuana changed their lives for the better.

One speaker, Jim Powers, MI Legalize board member, talked about how cannabis oil saved his son’s life. Powers is also a co-founder of the Michigan Parents for Compassion — an organization dedicated to teaching others about the positive effects of medical marijuana on children’s health.

His son, Ryan, suffers from Minimal Change Disease — an autoimmune disease of the kidneys. Powers said despite this, he and his son have not received medical protection from the state, which means his son’s successful medical treatment is still, technically, illegal.

“Ryan has been on many, many different toxic medications and none of them have worked for him,” Powers said. “We basically came to the end of the line when we decided to try cannabis oil, but the result was immediate. Before cannabis oil, Ryan was able to maintain a remission of about 14 days. I’m pleased to report that today, on cannabis oil, Ryan has been in remission for 302 days.”

Other highlights of the event included speakers from Students for Sensible Drug Policy, who talked about the effects of using marijuana on campuses with non-smoking policies and enforcement of state laws.

SSDP Deputy Director Stacia Cosner cited a U.S. Department of Education policy that rescinds college students’ financial aid if they are convicted for marijuana possession. Consequently, because residence halls are marijuana free, she said, even students who legally medicate with medical marijuana could end up facing disciplinary measures.

Law student Reid Murdoch and LSA senior Brian Kardell, executive members of the University’s SSDP chapter, discussed the impact the University’s policy prohibiting smoking in residence halls could have on students. Kardell urged the student crowd at Hash Bash to take a stance against such discrimination.

“Just because I choose to use marijuana doesn’t mean that I don’t deserve a professional career or that I am a bad student and a person,” Kardell said. “As leaders of the future, we don’t want to feed into a system of misinformation and justice. We need to have our voices heard now.”

After the speakers concluded, attendees moved to the Monroe Street Fair — now in its 14th year of partnering with Hash Bash festivities. The fair consisted of several street vendors, a meet-and-greet event with Chong and numerous musical acts.

Strachbein, the street fair coordinator, said these emerging artists were chosen because they could bring a new type of music to the fair and inspire the people. He also helped to sponsor Chong’s appearance at the fair and Hash Bash.

“We are just so proud and happy to have Chong with us today,” Strachbein said. “For the future, we hope that even more people join us and we can generate more revenue to help in reforming marijuana laws.”