For John Sinclair, the rally on December 10, 1971 in support of his release from state prison was a milestone in his life.
It was there that an enthusiastic crowd of over 15,000 gathered in the Crisler Arena on the University of Michigan campus to protest his conviction for possession of marijuana.
For months, people chanted and wrote “Free John Sinclair” letters to the newspapers.
Shortly after the Beatles split, iconic rock music star John Lennon attended the Ann Arbor Gathering, performing a song called “It Ain’t Fair, John Sinclair” which included lyrics:
“They gave him 10 for two
And what else can judges do?
They must, must, must, must, must, must, must, must,
I must, I must, I must, I must, I must, I must release him.
IStevie Wonder, Phil Ochs and Bob Seger also performed. Black Panther Bobby Seale was present, as was poet Allen Ginsberg.
“It felt good. I needed every ounce of that support, ”recalls Sinclair, now 80.
As an activist in the 1960s, the University of Michigan-Flint graduate advocated for marijuana reform and protests to end the Vietnam War. His poetry, music, and advocacy made him an enemy of the administration of GOP President Richard Nixon.
He was arrested on January 24, 1967, and later sentenced to two years to 9.5 to 10 years in Jackson Prison for possession of two marijuana cigarettes. He gave the cigarettes to an undercover Detroit police officer named Jane Mumford Lovelace, according to a November 6, 1971 Detroit Free Press article.
Some have called Sinclair a political prisoner. Sinclair’s legal supporters included blacks and whites such as Justin Ravitz, a Jewish lawyer and future local judge, and a law firm that included Robert Millender, an African-American partner.
Tom Maliszewski had just turned 21 when he attended the concert as a student at Eastern Michigan University. The Clinton Township resident noticed Sinclair because of his affiliation with the ultra-liberal Rainbow People’s Party.
“It was a political blockage,” said Maliszewski, who now runs a Detroit-based general construction company. Advance Tuesday.
Revolutionary legislation leads to freedom
Sinclair served about 29 months of his sentence when there was a breakthrough. In a bipartisan fashion, the Michigan House and Senate passed a law on December 9, 1971 – the day before the rally – that significantly reduced penalties for marijuana-related offenses.
Freshman House member and future Governor John Engler, then a 23-year-old Republican from Mt. Pleasant, voted in favor. So is Jack Faxon, a Liberal Democrat senator from Detroit.
Then-Gov. William Milliken, a moderate Republican, called the legislation “an informed approach that will lead to more effective enforcement.” Later that month, he signed a law making the “use” of drugs an offense punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a fine of $ 100. It was much more lenient than the existing law, which provided for a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a fine of $ 5,000 for the first conviction. A second offender could face a maximum of 20 years in prison.
Within days, Sinclair was released on December 13, 1971 and reunited with his family, which included his wife, Leni, and young daughters, Sunny, 4, and Celia, 2.
The Michigan Supreme Court denied that the Crisler Arena rally had anything to do with his release.
“It was strictly a question of the court’s response to the reduced sentence for marijuana recently passed by the state legislature,” a court spokesperson said in a Detroit Free Press report at the time.
Fifty years later, Sinclair remains angry with the situation. He said there are still far too many people who have been convicted, sentenced and jailed for possession of marijuana.
“It was bullshit,” he told the Advance Monday about his case in the 1960s. “And even now you have thousands of people in jail right now, even in Michigan.”
In 2008, voters in Michigan legalized medical marijuana. A decade later, another ballot measure passed the legalization of adult recreational marijuana. But activists continued to push for more reforms.
In 2019, Sinclair and a group of pro-cannabis groups disputed the Michigan Board of Pharmacy and its president, Nichole Cover, seeking to remove the body’s continuing list of marijuana as a controlled substance under state law. Sinclair called the list “extremely flawed.”
A celebration of the 1971 Gathering will be held Friday in Detroit at the Ralston Holistic Healing Center and Stonehouse Bar, 1973 Ralston St.