Hundreds of people flooded the Diag this past Saturday for the annual Hash Bash protest against the illegality of marijuana, and activists reiterated calls for the University and the state to model decriminalization measures off of statutes Ann Arbor’s existing statutes. Legalization activists also celebrated the passage of Proposal C, a city ballot initiative permitting the use of medicinal marijuana that passed with nearly 75 percent of the vote. Though there is some cause for celebration, numerous obstacles remain to be tackled. While this year’s Hash Bash attracted about 900 protesters and spectators — up from roughly 650 last year — it is nowhere near the size it once was. Much more than an opportunity to enjoy the pleasures of marijuana, Hash Bash embodies a political movement. If Ann Arbor residents and University students wish to see marijuana laws repealed, apathy must be the first thing to go.
Believing that Hash Bash is merely a celebration to consume marijuana, many University students remain unaware of the politics that motivated the first Hash Bash 34 years ago. In the 1960s, a Hill Street resident named John Sinclair was arrested multiple times for possession of minimal amounts of marijuana. His absurd 10-year sentence led 15,000 people to stage a protest in and around Crisler Arena. These efforts compelled local citizens not only to push for the legal reclassification of marijuana possession within Ann Arbor from a felony to a misdemeanor, but also to stage the original Hash Bash in order to build momentum toward future reform.
Current decriminalization efforts have focused on legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes. In November 2004, voters resoundingly approved Proposal C, which legalized medicinal marijuana in Ann Arbor. While it is encouraging that Ann Arbor citizens recognize the benefits of responsible marijuana use, county, state and federal laws still impose stiff legal penalties on those caught in possession. Marijuana reform needs to take hold across the state, and the disparity between Ann Arbor’s fines for marijuana use and the punitive measures taken under the state laws that are enforced on University grounds — a $25 fine off campus versus a $100 fine, a maximum 90-day jail sentence and possible expulsion from the University — needs to be resolved.
On a larger scale, the decriminalization of marijuana — which must be catalyzed by grass-roots activism such as Hash Bash — could lead to a larger trend. Since the so-called war on drugs began, penalties for nonviolent drug possession have become increasingly stiff, and prisons across the country have been overburdened with thousands of nonviolent, nonthreatening drug users. The state of Michigan appropriates more money per year to corrections than it does to higher education mainly because of the exploding cost of housing “criminals” who pose no danger to society. Local activism such as Hash Bash has the potential to send a message to legislators and officials: Excessively harsh drug laws are neither popular nor necessary.
Local protests such as Hash Bash must not diminish in size or influence. The local success of Proposal C should be used to build a larger statewide coalition to tackle troublesome marijuana laws at the state level. This year’s modest increase in turnout was insufficient. It is time that Hash Bash be revived to the size it once was, with renewed political zeal, to fight for sweeping reform of Michigan’s absurd drug laws.