Even though it is now dominated by aging hippies and stunted by underwhelming turnout, Hash Bash is one of Ann Arbor’s most recognizable traditions with one of its most important messages. Instead of a half-baked celebration of marijuana culture, the event is supposed to be a protest against America’s unnecessary and counterproductive marijuana laws. In this 37th year, students and activists should seize this opportunity to return Hash Bash to its roots – potentially with help of one of the event’s key figures.

The story of Hash Bash began in 1969 with the absurd. Arrested for possession of two joints, Hill Street resident John Sinclair was sentenced to prison for nine and a half to 10 years in prison under Michigan’s draconian drug laws. Two years later, students and Ann Arborites rallied together for a “Free John Now Rally” at Crisler Arena. The event showcased the who’s-who of left-leaning artists, including legends John Lennon and Stevie Wonder. Three days after the rally, the Michigan Supreme Court released Sinclair, striking down Michigan’s marijuana laws as unconstitutional.

When the state legislature replaced the laws with more lenient (but still unnecessary) drug laws, activists responded in protest – a tradition that continues on the first Saturday of every April. Unfortunately, apathy – and bad weather – have extinguished much of Hash Bash’s atmosphere on its last few anniversaries. Few students attend the event, and instead locals who remember the glory days when 15,000 people packed Crisler Arena to free Sinclair fill the Diag.

But it shouldn’t be that way. Grassroots efforts like Hash Bash are a major reason for Ann Arbor’s lenient marijuana laws, and should be a continued priority. Here, marijuana possession is considered a misdemeanor, with a $25 penalty for a first offense, $50 for a second and a $100 for all subsequent offenses. Further, because of a 2004 ballot initiative, medical marijuana is legal in the city, at least according to the city code. Both of these are positive reforms that shouldn’t be kept inside the bubble of Ann Arbor.

Nationwide, our strict marijuana laws continue to make little sense – with criminalization causing much more harm than legalization ever would. In 2005 alone, it was estimated that more than 600,000 arrests were made in connection with the marijuana market. Billions of dollars go to arresting, processing and prosecuting anyone with marijuana, from casual smokers to dealers. These people crowd America’s already-jammed jails and prisons, contributing to America’s status as the world leader in incarceration rates. And all of this for a drug that is no more damaging than cigarettes or alcohol and certainly not a threat to public safety or health.

At tomorrow’s Hash Bash, the event’s 37th anniversary, Sinclair may return to Ann Arbor from his home in Amsterdam to revitalize the event. But the movement to change America’s illogical drug laws will need more than an aging hippie to spearhead the effort. Students should turn out tomorrow at “high noon” for Hash Bash – not as an excuse to wear that T-shirt with a pot leaf on it and get high, but because the Diag can be a place to make a difference.

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