Hash Bash celebrates legalization victory, places emphasis on a push for expungement

Sunday, April 7, 2019 - 6:05pm

For the past 48 years, the first Saturday of April is accompanied by a potent haze that drifts across the Diag and all the way down State Street. At “high noon,” the University of Michigan’s campus welcomes a swarm of marijuana activists, entrepreneurs and enthusiasts from across the globe, all raising a joint in unison in celebration of the annual Hash Bash festival. This year, though, marked the start of a new era in cannabis culture.

In a 56-44-percent margin, Michigan voters passed Proposal 18-1, an initiative legalizing marijuana for those above the age of 21. Michigan is the first state in the midwest to pass this legislation, joining California, Colorado and the District of Columbia, among others.

This Saturday, following the victory at the ballot box in November, a banner underneath the Harlan Hatcher Library that last year read “LEGALIZE 2018,” was adjusted with black spray paint to now proclaim: “LEGALIZED 2018.”

Originally, Hash Bash was held on April 1, 1972 in protest of the conviction placed upon cultural activist and poet John Sinclair. The decision, made by the Michigan Supreme Court, sentenced Sinclair to 9.5 to 10 years in prison for the possession of two marijuana joints.

This conviction sparked national outrage, prompting The John Sinclair Freedom Rally in 1971, bringing worldwide superstars like John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Bob Seger and Stevie Wonder to the Crisler Center. Shortly after the historic assembly, Sinclair was released in December of 1971.

This year, Sinclair stepped up to the microphone to perform his spoken word poetry with guitarist Laith Al-Saadi, who kicked off the celebration with an electric guitar cover of the “Star Spangled Banner.” Before delivering his poetry, Sinclair encouraged the crowd to “light up and join me, if you got one,” and touched on how he’s seen the legacy of Hash Bash grow.  

“Welcome to legalization in the state of Michigan,” Sinclair said. “You haven’t been here before unless you were here in 1972 when we started it. We went three weeks without any marijuana law and believe me we took full advantage of every minute of it. Then when the Michigan law went into effect on April Fool’s day we said, ‘Fuck you, we’re going to go into the Diag to smoke some weed.’ That’s how it started and I’m proud to see it continuing in full force.”

Yet, some Ann Arbor residents, like Beau Prenevost, think that Hash Bash has shuffled away from being a traditional protest and transitioned into a day that perpetuates excessive smoking and assembles a less than ideal crowd.

“You know, Hash Bash used to be a political rally with a purpose,” Provost said. “Now it’s just an opportunity for the sauerkraut juicies to get blitzed and zombie-walk the city in their pj’s.”

Since its conception, attendance at the festival has reached more than 10,000 participants. This year gathered one of the biggest crowds in history. The event featured musicians, artists, activists and an overwhelming amount of Hash Bash speakers were Michigan lawmakers.

Following Sinclair, a video message from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer came in support of strengthening the state’s legal cannabis program, also echoing the previous expressions of triumph.

“We worked hard, we got it done, we made recreational marijuana legal in the state of Michigan,” Whitmer said. “Last month, I established the Marijuana Regulatory Agency to make sure we can efficiently regulate both medical and recreational marijuana. I am proud of the work we did to pass Prop 1.”

First time visitor Josue Centeno, LSA freshman, said he was impressed by the turnout and the range of speakers advocating for a substance traditionally labeled as unsafe.

“It’s a cool celebration — it’s a cool thing to see so many people come to together for something that has been criminalized and painted as a bad drug that really is just something for us to have fun and enjoy ourselves,” Centeno said. “I think it’s great that they’re going to tax weed now, hopefully it goes to something that makes citizens lives better now.”

Though the 2019 Hash Bash was mainly regarded as an observance of victory, much of the event’s speakers focused on the current issue of expungement. According to the Detroit Free Press, in the past five years, 117,123 Michiganders have been arrested and charged with misdemeanor marijuana offenses and 49,928 of those people have been convicted.

States including California, Maryland, New Hampshire and Oregon have already begun the process of clearing all marijuana-related claims. California, specifically, plans to instrument this change no later than July of 2020.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., also took the stage. Stating that although she was the “least likely speaker at Hash Bash because (she) never smoked marijuana,” she believes in its benefits and assures that she will try her best to expunge the records of those incarcerated on marijuana based charges.

“I’m looking at this crowd,” Dingell said. “I don’t care what race, what color, what gender, whatever you are: You’re all smoking marijuana. But, if your color happens to be Black, you’ve got a four more times likelihood of having been put in jail, had an unfair jail sentence and for too long. We’ve got to change the law, and I promise you I’m going to work my rear off making sure that happens.”

State Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, and state Reps. Sheldon Neeley, D-Flint, and Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, urged attendees to call their senators and to “fight for freedom” so that these laws can be implemented within the state of Michigan.

“We are your army in Lansing,” Neeley said. “But we can only be as strong as our soldiers. We have to push back against the dominant tendencies of those that will judge you, against those that keep you criminalized. We have to fight back, and to push these laws and legislation through to make sure your legislation is clean. Fight back: We freed the weed, now it’s time to free the people.”

Michael Chapman and Rachael Walsh have been traveling to Hash Bash from Bay City every year for the past 47 years. The reason, they said, is because these protests actually can influence change.

“We keep coming to Hash Bash because it works,” said Chapman. “Forty-seven years of coming here and complaining and going with people who are more organized and what not — it worked. We have recreational marijuana and medical marijuana in Michigan, and that’s what it was about. Plus, it’s always a beautiful day in Ann Arbor, so how could you not?”