FREE THE WEED 48
A Column by John Sinclair
Contemplating the 50th anniversary of my joining the marijuana legalization movement in January 1965, it’s sobering to note that the movement’s vivid origins in the beatnik poetry community have been nearly obliterated by the passage of time and the process of NORMLization that took effect in the 1970s.
But the movement began with poets Allen Ginsberg and Ed Sanders and before that, with the writings of Jack Kerouac and the fall 1957 publication of his book On The Road, which introduced the concept of young white people smoking marijuana to the modern era.
I was reminded of this part of our history last month while reading Fug You, the memoirs of Ed Sanders, a pivotal figure in the development of what they call the counter-culture: editor and publisher of Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts and the Fuck You Press, founder and lead singer of The Fugs, founding member of the Yippies, music coordinator of the Festival of Life at the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968, and best-selling author of The Family, a chronicle of the evildoings of Charles Manson and his twisted gang of followers.
Ed Sanders says: “By the spring of 1964 I had become active in the movement, just beginning, for the legalization of marijuana. I published a full-page editorial in Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts (Volume 5, Number 6) calling for legalization of what I called the Ra Herb, ‘A CALL TO ACTION—Stomp Out the Marijuana Laws Forever!’
“The editorial began: “OK, all you motherfuckers. We know that you’re smoking more grass than a prairie fire…Time is NOW for a Total Assault on the Marijuana Laws!...Contacts with newspapers, the mass media, letters and phone campaigns. An intelligent, sensitive campaign to present the facts, the testimonies of legal and medical authorities, and so forth….FORWARD! THIS IS OPERATION GRASS!
“Hemp is the WAY! We demand the ‘holy weed marijuana’
under our own judgement!
When a law is useless
when a law is degrading
when it prohibits
the right to
a gentle healthful pleasure
GOD THROUGH CANNABIS!”
The first step of the movement toward legalization was actually taken on August 16, 1964, when a character named Lowell Eggemeier marched into the San Francisco Hall of Justice, fired up a joint and announced that “I am starting a campaign to legalize marijuana smoking, and I wish to be arrested.” He was promptly hauled off to jail for marijuana possession, at that time a serious felony under the narcotics laws.
Eggemeier’s protest attracted the attention of a San Francisco attorney named James R. White III, who filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus for Eggemeier’s release and organized the original marijuana reform advocacy group, LeMar (Legalize Marijuana), to support Eggemeier’s defense.
White’s petition argued that marijuana’s status as an illegal narcotic was an unconstitutional violation of the 8th Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment and the 14th Amendment’s due process clause. Copies of the petition were mimeographed and sold to help raise funds for Eggemeier’s defense.
I bought a copy of the brief in the fall of 1964 after I was busted for marijuana sales and possession by the Detroit Narcotics Bureau and later based my challenge to Michigan's oppressive marijuana laws on Atty. White’s arguments in the brief. The document reached and inspired fledgling marijuana activists all over the country.
Thus, in the fall of 1964, Ed Sanders testifies, “I talked it over with Allen Ginsberg, and we decided to form the Committee to Legalize Marijuana (New York LeMar) with a guy named Randy Wicker, a gay activist…and we soon organized probably the first demonstrations to legalize grass in American history.”
Staged in Tompkins Square Park on the lower east side of New York City on December 27, 1964, the initial Marihuana March advanced LeMar’s succinct three-point program: (1) Legalize the use of Marihuana (2) Legalize the sale and transport of pot (3) Free all prisoners.
“One project for the Committee to Legalize Marijuana,” Sanders continues, “was the Marijuana Newsletter, which I published at Peace Eye Bookstore. I hand-drew on stencils and typed the two issues of the Marijuana Newsletter, one in January and another in March .
“The Marijuana Newsletter created quite a stir and set in motion various current in the nation for change. It showed that you could publish such a newsletter, and get away with it. It led to people such as d.a. levy in Cleveland and John Sinclair in Detroit publishing their own calls for legalization.”
d.a. levy’s advocacy of legalization and publication of the Marrawanna Review and Buddhist Third-Class Junkmail Oracle in Cleveland resulted in police harassment so intense that levy took his own life.
In my case in Detroit I suffered two arrests for marijuana offenses, served six months in the Detroit House of Correction in 1966 and a total of five years’ probation, took a third arrest in January 1967 and mounted a legal challenge to Michigan’s draconian marijuana laws—10 years for possession, 20 years to life in prison for selling or dispensing the weed—that took five years (including another 29 months in prison) before I emerged victorious in the Michigan Supreme Court in March of 1972.
My own efforts to promote legalization in Michigan attracted the attention of a young man in Buffalo, NY named Mike Aldrich, recently returned from a stay in India and studying for his Ph.D. at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Now Michael R. Aldrich, Ph.D., he is the author of the first doctoral dissertation on cannabis in the United States, “Marijuana Myths and Folklore” (1970).
Aldrich took up the cause of LEMAR and began publishing the Marijuana Review (1968-1973), the first nationally-circulated marijuana magazine, carrying on in direct succession the work begun by Ed Sanders and Allen Ginsberg. A couple of years later writer, editor and director of the Underground Press Syndicate, Tom Forcade would take the stakes a little higher with the establishment of High Times magazine, now about to celebrate its 40th anniversary as the world’s leading cannabis publication.
But it was 10 years earlier, in 1965, that the movement began to coalesce, and the popularity of weed began to crest in 1967 after Allen Ginsberg had turned Bob Dylan on to weed and Bob in turn introduced the sacrament to the Beatles, who put it to work at once in works like Rubber Soul and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that reached millions and millions of people around the world.
After completing his doctorate Mike Aldrich settled in San Francisco, where he published the Marijuana Review and co-founded Amorphia, The Cannabis Cooperative, active between 1969 and 1973. When I got out of prison I was named to the Board of Directors of Amorphia and helped organize the California Marijuana Initiative, the first-ever ballot initiative to legalize marijuana. Although the CMI failed, it did much better than expected, prompting the California legislature to decriminalize marijuana possession in 1975.
In Ann Arbor the progressive community elected two representatives to the City Council and successfully passed a city ordinance establishing a $5.00 fine as punishment for any and all marijuana offenses in the city. Soon East Lansing and Ypsilanti passed the same sort of ordinance and Michigan was leading the nation with its decriminalization efforts.
I went to California in the summer of 1972 to campaign for Proposition 19 along with a young lawyer from our nation’s capitol named Keith Stroup, who was just beginning to organize a decriminalization movement called The National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). Before long Amorphia would merge with NORML, but NORML’s conservative approach to legalization resulted in a freeze in progress until California legalized medical marijuana 20 years later.
Another 20 years have since passed with a lot more progress, and now we’re finally on the verge of reaching our goal: FREE THE WEED!
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February 14-15, 2015
© 2015 John Sinclair. All Rights Reserved.