John Sinclair is one of the lesser-known people in cannabis culture, but he’s a very important figure, particularly for anti-prohibition activists. Sinclair is a native of Flint, Michigan, far from the hippie epicenters in California or the Warhol scene of the Big Apple. The scene in Michigan was grittier and more blue collar. Their standard bearer was not The Doors or The Dead, but noisy punk-rock forerunners the MC5.
John Sinclair and the MC5
Sinclair worked to reorganize Detroit’s underground newspaper Fifth Estate, which still publishes as an alternative weekly in Detroit as of 2018. But his biggest impact on the counterculture was as the manager for the MC5 from 1966 to 1969. He was the one who got them to embrace revolutionary politics and the counterculture, two features that set them apart from the rest of the pack and became indispensable to their image.
The peak of his time with “The Five” was when they played a free concert outside of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, which erupted into a riot. Several bands were scheduled to play but only the MC5 did. Sinclair continued to be friends with the group after he parted ways with them and has spoken at some of their reunion concerts.
Free John Sinclair!
John Sinclair’s role as a cannabis culture icon was cemented when he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for giving two joints to an undercover police officer in 1969. Fellow cannabis culture icon Abbie Hoffman stormed the stage at Woodstock and attempted to inform the crowd of Sinclair’s plight during The Who’s set but only got out a few grunts before Pete Townshend threw him offstage. John Lennon raised more awareness with his song “John Sinclair” from Some Time In New York City.
The Sinclair freedom movement culminated in the John Sinclair Freedom Rally in Ann Arbor in December 1971. Lennon and Yoko Ono were there, as was Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger, Allen Ginsberg and Jerry Rubin. Sinclair was released from prison three days after the rally when the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that the state’s marijuana laws -- and thus his conviction -- were unconstitutional. After release, Sinclair went back to activism and helped the decriminalization effort in Ann Arbor.
These days Sinclair lives in Amsterdam where he is still active in legalization efforts for countries still under cannabis prohibition. He has a regular column called “Free the Weed,” focusing on the social history of marijuana use in the United States. He’s hopefully smiling about the recent legalization in Michigan.