In light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the annual Hash Bash festival — now in its 50th consecutive year — hosted a live-streamed variety show featuring key political figures, athletes, musicians, business owners and other prominent voices in the pro-cannabis movement.
In accordance with public health guidelines, the organizers of Hash Bash encouraged participants to celebrate the festival from the comfort of their own homes. Despite these efforts, some enthusiasts took the initiative to host an in-person smoke-in on the Diag, Hash Bash’s birthplace.
For any other pre-pandemic year, thousands of marijuana activists, protesters and enthusiasts from across the globe travel to Ann Arbor to light a joint while advocating for marijuana legislation and celebrating cannabis culture. Last year’s rally was held completely online after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down in-person activity.
In Nov. 2018, the state of Michigan passed Proposal I, making it legal for those 21 and older to possess up to 2.5 ounces of recreational marijuana. Michigan was the first state in the Midwest to legalize recreational marijuana, following other states like California, Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada.
Both the in-person and virtual events commemorated the cannabis movement’s achievements while advocating for progressive marijuana legislation on the federal level.
The festival first began in 1972, four months after a freedom rally in protest of the conviction of longtime activist and poet John Sinclair, whom the Michigan Supreme Court sentenced to 9.5 to 10 years for the possession of two marijuana joints in 1971. Sinclair organized the first Hash Bash in protest of the Controlled Substances Act. Since then, Hash Bash has transformed into a large-scale festival drawing in social activists and cannabis enthusiasts from all across the state and country.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily prior to the event, Adam Rosenberg, University of Michigan Business School alum and founder of Green Wolverine — an organization dedicated to exploring the cannabis industry — echoed the importance of federal decriminalization and legalization.
When discussing his expectations for the event, Rosenberg said he hoped policymakers in attendance would promote further access to cannabis research and support for the SAFE Banking Act, which would allow cannabis companies to receive the same financial services and public listings as non-cannabis companies.
“Most importantly, there needs to be an elimination of the contradiction between state law and federal law through federal decriminalization, which would eliminate the current law that essentially equates cannabis with heroin at the federal level,” Rosenberg said. “This conversation needs to come from our federal leadership.”
The virtual festival kicked off at “high noon” with a Woodstock-style, Jimi Hendrix-inspired rendition of the national anthem played by “The Voice” finalist Laith Al-Saadi.
Emceed by Anqunette Sarfoh, former Fox 2 Detroit News anchor, Hash Bash featured a pre-recorded video from Sinclair.
In his statement, Sinclair said the cannabis movement is still protesting the same controlled-substances rhetoric as when Hash Bash began, in addition to the mass criminalization of people with marijuana-based offenses. According to the ACLU, Black people are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested on marijuana-related charges than white people in the United States.
“Now that we legalized medical marijuana (in Michigan) in 2008, and we legalized recreational marijuana (in Michigan) in 2018, our big job is to get the police off our backs and get them out of the marijuana issue, completely and fully,” Sinclair said. “That’s my goal.”
Reiterating Sinclair’s call for decriminalization, the Michigan Cannabis Freedom Coalition spoke about Michael Thompson, whose story broke national headlines earlier this year. After being incarcerated for 25 years in Michigan’s prison system for charges related to selling marijuana, Thompson was released in January following widespread community support and lobbying efforts. Embraced by the cannabis community, Thompson found employment within the marijuana sector and is dedicated to reducing mass incarceration in Michigan.
“I just hope somebody can hear me, that’s dealing with prison reform … because those guys are human beings,” Thompson said in a video presented by the Michigan Cannabis Freedom Coalition. “It’s not just about me, it’s about thousands of guys that need help.”
Through sponsorships and donations, this year’s Hash Bash promised to support the cannabis community by providing financial support for those impacted by the War on Drugs.
“That’s why we are here today,” Sarfoh said. “Because of the support from people like you and support from our sponsors, we are able to give to a fund that can also help the other Michael Thompson’s of the world out there because there are too many. One is too many. We want to make sure that all of them are out of jail and prison and their lives restored.”
Despite the legalization of marijuana in Michigan in 2018, as of Dec. 2020, 250,000 Michigan residents have marijuana-related convictions on their records and some of them are still incarcerated.
Hash Bash also featured policymakers like Attorney General Dana Nessel and State Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, who advocated for the cannabis movement on the legislative level.
In an interview with The Daily, LSA junior Ilan Elrom, chair of the Green Wolverine’s investment fund committee, said a major catalyst for the cannabis movement’s growth is ongoing support from state and federal leadership.
“If you look at Hash Bash and how it’s evolved, I think it broadly speaks to the greater normalization of the cannabis industry, whether that’s culturally, whether that’s legally,” Elrom said. “It really just speaks to the change in the way that everybody thinks about the industry, and I think that’s pretty evident in how Hash Bash has evolved but also in how more than half of the states now have a medical or an adult-use market.”
Nessel, who spoke at the event, talked about her recent efforts to expunge marijuana-related charges.
“My office’s involvement in working with the legislature to draft the proper language for the expungement bills that passed and were signed into law recently is important to ensure fairness for so many individuals who’ve been convicted for something that’s no longer a crime in our state,” Nessel said.
Nessel also said she joined a coalition to urge Congress to pass the SAFE Banking Act that would allow cannabis businesses to access the Federal Bank system, protecting Michigan’s emerging marijuana industry and its consumers. To Nessel, these legislative initiatives work to remove the stigma of marijiana while further protecting marginalized communities.
“Cannabis reform is needed to ensure restorative justice,” Nessel said. “Marijuana law reform would reduce the harm to people and communities of color who are disproportionately impacted by current cannabis laws, create jobs and economic opportunities as the legalization and regulation of marijuana bring one of the largest cash crops under the rule of law, save taxpayer dollars and allow already scarce law enforcement resources to be better used to ensure safe communities, while simultaneously reducing the burden on our courts and correction system.”
In a pre-recorded statement, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., discussed progressive legislative efforts to support the cannabis community. The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2019 proposed to remove marijuana from the list of federally controlled substances and to erase federal marijuana convictions and arrests. Though the MORE Act failed to pass the Senate in 2019, Dingell said she is confident the bill will succeed with the current Congress.
“We have a moral responsibility to right the wrongs of our past and the economic opportunity to help our local communities grow in a rapidly expanding industry,” Dingell said. “We need to get these issues dealt with at the federal level, and I’ll tell you, I’m going to be one of the loudest voices saying, ‘It’s time. There are things that must be done.’”
While Dingell focused on the future of cannabis legislation, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — who also spoke at the event — reflected upon the progress achieved under her tenure.
“Legalization has been a long, difficult and, for some, painful process,” Whitmer said. “But we came together and voted for a different future here in Michigan. The progress we’ve made in the last two years excites me tremendously, and I cannot imagine where the industry will be in another two years, let alone another 50.”
Despite Whitmer’s claims of progress, social and political activists attending Hash Bash said mass incarceration is one of Michigan’s most pressing social issues. As an organization that supports expungement and clemency efforts, the Michigan Cannabis Industry Association works closely with the Michigan Legislature to protect access to medicinal cannabis without fear of arrest.
Reflecting upon the progress made by the Michigan Legislature thus far, Robin Schneider, executive director of MiCIA, said though cannabis was legalized in Michigan in 2018, there is more work that needs to be done to ensure that laws are equitable.
“Our mission is fair and equitable licensing in the cannabis industry as well as industry inclusion,” Schneider said. “We’ve made a ton of progress over the last two years, but there’s still a lot more work to be done. We’re celebrating legalization, but many of us haven’t forgotten where we have come from.”
As for the role that Hash Bash will continue to play in the cannabis movement, Adam Brook, known as “Mr. Hash Bash” for his involvement in the festival, encouraged activists to continue to protest on the first Saturday of every April for years to come.
“We have a lot of misinformation to correct,” Brooke said. “Through opportunities like this, we can change some minds. I encourage you all to come out on the first Saturday in April on the Diag at high noon, smoke a joint and protest because that’s what the Hash Bash is. It’s a smoke-in and a protest.”
In lieu of the official Hash Bash rally, around 800 people gathered at the University of Michigan’s Diag Saturday afternoon for a “smoke-in protest” to celebrate this year’s Hash Bash festival in-person.
At the start of Saturday’s unofficial protest, former Hash Bash organizer Adam Brook told the crowd that the purpose of Saturday’s protest was to advocate for Ann Arbor marijuana laws to legalize smoking marijuana in public, as well as rally the community to fight in unison for public marijuan use. According to Michigan law, you can only smoke marijuana in private, such as in your home or others’.
“Now there’s a point to this,” Brook told the crowd. “And that is to show the world and the people that aren’t here that we’re here. And why are we here? Because we care.”
Brook also told the crowd that those present on the Diag should follow COVID-19 rules, including social distancing and wearing masks, though a majority of attendees were seen without masks while participating in marijuana use. The in-person Hash Bash protest was held amid increasing COVID-19 cases in Washtenaw County and the state of Michigan. On March 31, U-M officials identified a “noticeable uptick” in University-related cases, which now represent 15% of the total cases in the county — a 6% increase from March 23.
The University’s Office of Public Affairs told MLive that the University supports free-speech gatherings, but U-M officials “do not condone the use of drugs on our campus.” Ann Arbor Police Chief Michael Cox also told MLive that public marijuana use is prohibited, especially during a pandemic.
Heather Young, strategic communications director for U-M’s Division of Public Safety and Security, wrote to The Daily in an email saying that “there were no incidents reported as a result of the activity and no arrests” during Saturday’s in-person Hash Bash gathering.
In addition to his remarks during the official virtual livestream, Sinclair also attended the in-person event and addressed the crowd.
“We’re here today in solidarity, we’re leaders of human consciousness and human evolution, Sinclair said. “We’re healing ourselves, we’re doing emotional healing… please heal, love embrace, accept, have radical acceptance of yourself and life itself.”
Ann Arbor native Laith Al-Saadi — who has performed the national anthem at Hash Bash festivals for over ten years — spoke about ending the War on Drugs.
According to the ACLU, marijuana arrests make up half of all drug-related arrests in the United States, with most being low-level arrests for drug possession. Incarceration also disproportionately affects Black people who are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for possession of mariuana compared to white people.
“Many non-violent people that are in jail right now have had their liberties taken away and their lives ruined by this totally uncompassionate system that criminalizes and punishes addiction and drug problems,” Al-Saadi said. “And this is a major issue, so you know we’ve gotten far on this good fight and there’s a long way to go. But this year, we’re gathered here for this protest, and I want to remind everybody — because some people think this is a celebration — we’ve made some progress, but until all prisoners of this War on Drugs are freed, we haven’t done our work.”
Madison Heights resident Wayne Croutun told The Michigan Daily he attended Saturday’s protest because he is passionate about the fight to legalize marijuana use in public.
“The state? They’re going in the right direction, but there’s still a lot of work to be done,” Croutun said. “Free the weed!”
Another speaker — who goes by Brando the Weed Commando — also addressed the audience, saying he has attended Hash Bash every year since the 1980s. He said the Hash Bash event is never a celebration, because though the marijuana community has had several victories over the past year, there is always more work to be done to legalize marijuana use in public.
“You can celebrate if you want… but just remember that the people that were here before that, the people that were growing during full prohibition, are the reason why we’re here today celebrating anything,” he said. “Now we’ve got to keep fighting.”
Update: This article has been updated with a statement from U-M’s Division of Public Safety and Security regarding the zero arrests from Saturday’s in-person Hash Bash rally. The article has also been updated with a more accurate count of the number of people that attended the in-person Hash Bash rally, which was 800 rather than 300 attendees.