John Sinclair – Interview with a Counter-Culture Legend

John Sinclair’s life is one that every cannabis enthusiast should celebrate. Years of radio, jazz, and poetry were mingled with years of cannabis activism. After helping to change Michigan state cannabis laws forever, Sinclair is a hero in the eyes of the cannabis industry. We share Sensi Seeds’ exclusive interview with Sinclair himself.

In the world of cannabis, nothing is obvious. Stigmatization, repression and harsh laws – frequently based in inaccurate information – are factors that the sector must deal with on a daily basis. It would have been impossible for the cannabis business to come so far without the unbridled commitment of various key figures. Many people have dedicated their hearts and souls to the cannabis plant, individuals who passionately strive for a better image of the cannabis sector and successfully manage to propel it forward.

Sensi Seeds interviews a true entrepreneur. The legendary cannabis activist, jazz poet, counter-culture giant and good friend of the Sensi Seeds family, John Sinclair has been the first to submit himself to the Sensi Seeds interview team.

For those who don’t know John Sinclair and would like to, below is an outline of his impressive life, written by the man himself.

An Introduction – John Sinclair in his own words

John Sinclair (born October 2, 1941) hails from Flint, Michigan in the United States. John attended Albion College and graduated from the Flint College of the University of Michigan with an A.B. in English Literature in January 1964. He pursued graduate studies in American Literature at Wayne State University in Detroit with a Master’s Thesis on William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, but left before completing his degree to found the Detroit Artists Workshop. Here he takes up his extraordinary story in his own words.

John Sinclair: This radical artists’ collective, the Detroit Artists Workshop, introduced contemporary avant-garde arts and attitude to Detroit on November 1, 1964, producing weekly jazz and poetry concerts, publishing mimeographed magazines and poetry books, mounting exhibitions of paintings and photographs, screening underground films, hosting creative workshops in the arts and serving as a center for the city’s bohemian arts community.

The opening of the Detroit Artists Workshop followed shortly after I suffered my first arrest for marijuana violations. In October 1964, I was charged with selling narcotics – $10 worth of marijuana – to an undercover State Police officer. I pled guilty to possession and, in December, was sentenced in Detroit Recorders Court to two years’ probation.

Becoming an activist

I became a marijuana activist in January 1965 when I founded Detroit LEMAR, a grass-roots organization dedicated to legalizing marijuana in Michigan. LEMAR organized educational meetings, published and distributed pamphlets and other informational materials, and provided speakers to community groups interested in the marijuana issue. I became a public spokesman for LEMAR and advocate of marijuana legalization.

In August 1965, I was arrested by Detroit Narcotics Police and charged with procuring a small bag of marijuana for an undercover narcotics agent, a crime that carried the punishment of conviction — mandatory-minimum 20-year prison sentence with a maximum of life in prison. Seeking to challenge the constitutionality of Michigan’s marijuana laws on several issues, I was unable to secure a lawyer who would front this crusade and ended up pleading guilty once again to possession of marijuana. I received a sentence in Detroit Recorders Court of two years additional probation with the first six months to be spent in the Detroit House of Correction.

Trans-Love Energies & meeting the MC-5

I was released from DeHoCo in August 1966 and returned to the Artists Workshop community, which welcomed me home with a Festival of People that featured, among many others, a rock & roll band called the MC-5 that had just moved into the neighborhood. I became friends with the band, its lead singer, Rob Tyner, and Tyner’s best friend from high school, the artist Gary Grimshaw, who would create many important posters for the MC-5 and for a wide range of cultural events in Detroit and Michigan.

In January 1967, Tyner, Grimshaw and I founded a cultural collective called Trans-Love Energies that drew together the many disparate elements of Detroit’s burgeoning hippie community. We planned a major benefit concert at the Grande Ballroom called Guerrilla Love Fare that would provide funding for the group’s projected activities. This included agitation for marijuana legalization and a defense fund for community members arrested on drug charges.

Before the event could be staged, the Detroit Narcotics Police mounted a community-wide bust that seized 56 persons in a series of pre-dawn raids and charged me with being the ringleader of a “massive campus dope ring”. I was accused of having given two joints to an undercover policewoman just before Christmas 1966. Charged for the third time with Violation of State Narcotics Laws (VSNL), I faced a sentence upon conviction of 20 years to life in prison.

Through Trans-Love Energies and Detroit LEMAR, the community and I fought back. We secured a legal team who asserted that the state’s marijuana laws were unconstitutional.  They started with the fact that marijuana is not a narcotic and that the mandated sentence of 20 to life constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

Going on trial

Thus began a five-year legal battle that started in Detroit Recorders Court with the unprecedented appointment of a three-judge panel to consider my challenge to the constitutionality of the law. It then continued in the Michigan Court of Appeals and the Michigan Supreme Court while I was free on bond awaiting trial. All three courts denied judgment and ruled that the case must be brought to trial and appealed upon conviction in order to properly raise the constitutional issues.

Accordingly, I went on trial in Recorders Court in July 1969. The day before the trial began, the prosecution dropped the “sale or dispensing” charge with the 20 to life sentence. They proceeded with a case for possession of the two joints that had been given to the undercover policewoman two-and-a-half years before. I sustained the conviction necessary for my appeal but was sentenced to 9-1/2 to 10 years in prison and shipped immediately to Jackson Prison to begin my sentence.

White Panther Party

Prior to my incarceration, I was also manager of the Detroit band called the MC-5. Under my leadership the band signed with Elektra Records, released its first album recorded “live” at the Grande Ballroom, became well-known in the US and beyond, and is still spoken of today for their tightly structured, high-energy performances.

During this period, myself, Detroit LEMAR, Trans-Love Energies and the MC-5 were relentlessly persecuted by the Detroit Narcotics Police and other local authorities for their defiance of the narcotics laws. We were also vilified for our opposition to the War in Vietnam, active support of the black liberation movement, and inflammatory concerts and performances throughout the area.

In May 1968, the entire Trans-Love Energies commune—including the MC-5, the Up, the Trans-Love Light Show, the Sun underground newspaper, and the Artists Workshop Press—fled Detroit and settled 50 miles west in the college town of Ann Arbor. This is where they carried on their activities in full force without fear of brutal police retaliation.

In November 1968, the collective reconstituted itself as the White Panther Party, a radical-left, anti-racist political collective led by the MC-5 that focused completely on the cultural and political revolution of the ’60s. Upon the release of the first MC-5 album in January 1969, the band and I began touring nationally, spreading the message of the White Panthers and introducing our program of “rock & roll, dope, and fucking in the streets” to rebellious young Americans everywhere.

The Freedom Rally

My political activities and the band’s large following among young people did not make me popular with the government and led to a 10-year imprisonment over two joints. This imprisonment led to endless protests and rallies over the next 29 months, culminating in the ‘John Sinclair Freedom Rally’ on December 10, 1971. This rally filled the 14,000 seat Crisler Arena at UM.

During this combination protest rally and festival, diverse artists such as Stevie Wonder, Phil Ochs, Black Panther Party Chairman Bobby Seale, Allen Ginsberg and John Lennon & Yoko Ono pleaded for my release and an end to such harsh penalties for cannabis. Lennon even wrote a song protesting my imprisonment that he performed with Yoko Ono during the Freedom Rally.

My legal challenge entered the Michigan Supreme Court in the fall of 1971 and the efforts of LEMAR and the White Panther Party continued to build support for reforming the state’s narcotics laws. Largely as a result of this movement and directly in response to my brief, on December 9, 1971 – the day before the concert – the Supreme Court admitted that marijuana is not a narcotic and reduced the sentences for cannabis possession to one year, and four years maximum for sales.

Three days after the protest, on Monday, December 13, I was released on appeal bond and in March 1972, my appeal was granted. I was set free from further punishment. Shortly afterwards, some 140 state prisoners were released from their sentences as well.

Ann Arbor community

Upon my release, I returned to Ann Arbor to assume the chairmanship of the Rainbow Peoples Party which had succeeded the White Panthers and dedicated itself to organization and activity of the Ann Arbor community on a full-time basis.

The Rainbow Peoples Party conducted many activities such as forming the Ann Arbor Tribal council, producing weekly Freek Concerts in the Parks, the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festivals, and publishing the Ann Arbor Sun newspaper. Aside from these activities, the Rainbow Peoples Party joined other progressive elements in the community to form the Human Rights Party, a radical electoral party that ran candidates for the Ann Arbor City Council and other public offices.

The Michigan marijuana laws were ruled unconstitutional and void by the Michigan Supreme Court on March 9, 1972. The new drug laws enacted the previous December would not take effect until April 1. Thus, Michigan was without marijuana prohibition for about three weeks in the spring of 1972. At the end of this glorious period, the marijuana smokers of Ann Arbor gathered on the Diag of the University of Michigan for what they called a Hash Bash, to express their continuing determination to defy the drug laws.

Two days later, the Ann Arbor election was held with 18-year-old citizens allowed to vote for the first time, and the Human Rights Party won two seats on the seven-member City Council. Soon the HRP proposed an ordinance that would all but legalize marijuana in Ann Arbor, limiting punishment for any marijuana offense to the payment of a $5.00 fine.

There would be no more arrests beyond the issuance of a violation ticket. This ordinance was passed and a new benchmark was created in the struggle to legalize marijuana, which is, now 40 years later, approaching victory.

In the years since, I have continued to advocate for marijuana legalization during the course of a highly active career as a poet, writer, blues & jazz performer, journalist, disc jockey, radio presenter, broadcast producer, and leader of various cultural organisations too numerous to mention here. Since 2003, I have been living alternately in Amsterdam and the US, and travelling the world performing with a wide range of musical accompanists. I make radio shows wherever I go for www.RadioFreeAmsterdam.com.

White Panther: The Legacy of John Sinclair

Now that you have read the life story of John Sinclair in his very own words, you can also listen to him describe his years as an activist. White Panther: The Legacy of John Sinclair is a short film about Sinclair’s legacy. It includes interview footage with John Sinclair, and lots of fascinating archive footage from his activism years.

Sensi Seeds interviews John Sinclair

When Sensi Seeds had the chance to interview John Sinclair, it was like coming in direct contact with a piece of cannabis history. He has been a long-time friend of Sensi Seeds, after all. Almost every year, Sinclair did radio shows at the Cannabis College. He bumped into Ben Dronkers at pretty much every Cannabis Cup since he first started coming to Amsterdam.

When Sensi Seeds asked John Sinclair what his everyday life looked like, he replied:

“Breakfast, newspaper, weed, music. What I like to do – if I could do what I wanted every day – is get up, have a leisurely morning, have my breakfast, get my paper and go to the coffeeshop, read the paper, do the crossword puzzle, have a couple of cups of espresso, smoke my joint, then open my computer and plug into the world.”

Sinclair expressed that he lives in a world in his head, and is not very much influenced by the outside world.

“Basically… it starts with the fact that I’m not very much influenced by the outer world. I like to be in it, and move around in it, I like the fresh air and being around people, but I’m really in here, my mind, you know?”

Sinclair’s life revolved around arts, poetry, jazz music, and radio. But it didn’t just revolve around creating art, but sharing it with everybody around him.

“I love to make radio shows. They don’t make radio shows like mine anymore, so it’s an archaic thing. I have the feeling I am preserving something. I just wrote a column on this yesterday, for the Michigan Medical Marihuana Report. I have a column there and I can write about anything I want. So I was writing about the music on the radio when I was growing up. It was the framework of life, it was always there, it was always great music. It did not cost anything, it followed you everywhere you went; it was in your car, in your room. This was what life made wonderful and exciting: great music. It was the soundtrack of your life.”

Sinclair explained what it was like to manage MC5, the rock-and-roll band he helped to get famous. He describes what was different about the music scene back then, and what smaller crowds meant for the musicians and their fans:

“Well yeah, the human element. I came up in the days that a festival was a field with 2000 people and one stage and it didn’t cost anything. Hippies that just wanted to have a good time. That was the concept: just having a good time. There was acid, reefers, you could take your clothes off if you wanted, fucking, whatever you want – plus there was good music. But now, if you’re a musician in a popular band, it isn’t something that you would call fun.”

John Sinclair’s life of music, poetry, and activism is nothing short of inspired. So Sensi Seeds wondered what, other than cannabis, John Sinclair used for inspiration:

“I always have a creative spirit. It’s the application. Well, I mean I apply it to different things that I do and I like to do a lot of different kinds of things, but I always approach them the same way, from a creative perspective, you know. So I don’t have any problems summoning the spirit, just channelling it into this or that, you know. That’s what I do [laughs]. That is a good question.”

We asked John Sinclair how he discovered cannabis:

“I read On the Road by Jack Kerouac in the fall of 1957 when it came out. That really gave me my whole template of life. I wanted to be like that. They smoked weed, listened to jazz, had a great time; that’s what On the Road is really about: the tremendous conversations and energy, the fun that they had. That was what I wanted, so weed was all part of it. And then it took several years to find some weed. It wasn’t until the 60’s that weed started getting around among white people in the States.”

Sinclair described the importance of radio to him and what it meant to present music to the people. He loved bringing music to people that they had never heard before. Of course, Sinclair’s radio career started long before the internet, so Sensi Seeds was curious to know what it was like for him to transition into the digital age. He answered this question with true Sinclair humour: 

“Well I’m in this world, so I like it. For me iTunes is the best thing since inter-racial sex. I fucking love iTunes. I’ve been collecting music all my life. This is way beyond records.”

We asked him if he likes the digital «way» more than the traditional one:

“I like it! You can carry all the music with you. I have a hard drive with 750 gigabytes of music on there. When I was doing a radio show back in the day I had to fill a milk crate with LP’s. Now I have a thing I can put in my pocket with all my music and an archive of my shows. There are a lot of them online, everyone can listen to them. I think that is tremendous. In my Archive at the University of  Michigan, I have cassette recordings of all my shows from the past 40-some years. It would take several people several months to digitalize that. But maybe one day we will! [laughs].“

Sensi Seeds asked Sinclair which was the weirdest, most special place he recorded a John Sinclair radio show.

“At an airport, Schiphol! I was connected to an artist called Anthony Murrell. He produced a series of art-related shows for our radio station and he had a friend who was doing a crazy project at the airport. He was recreating ‘De Nachtwacht’ (‘The Night Watch’) by Rembrandt van Rijn at the airport. I also did several shows on trains. Recently when I came back from Rotterdam’s North Sea Jazz Festival, I made one on the train. Trains from New Orleans to Chicago. Airplanes no, they are so noisy. Oh, and on a boat, from Holland to England. Sitting on the deck smoking a joint and making a show. On the Amsterdam canals on the Pidgeon Poetry Boat; that was during a cultural event and we were doing readings on the boat. That was cool, we made a show at the same time.”

We started to get curious about who, if anyone, John Sinclair would collaborate with. After all, there must be millions out there dying to collaborate with Sinclair, but who would be his first choice ?

“Yeah. Keith Richards.”

From his whole life’s work, Sinclair thinks there’s a few records in particular that say the most about him as a person.

“Yeah, I’ve got three or four really good albums, from my point of view. One of them is a record I made with Wayne Kramer from the MC5, and a horn section from Detroit. One of the few poetry records with a horn section. [laughs] It’s called ‘Full Circle’. I made another really good record about five years ago with some guys that I’ve been working with in Detroit for thirty years, and it’s called ‘Detroit Life’ and all the poems have got Detroit in them somewhere. Then I’ve got a protracted blues work called ‘Fattening Frogs For Snakes’, and it’s in four volumes, and the first volume of that called ‘The Delta Sound’, that’s a really good record. Andre Williams produced it for me. So that would be a good start. Then I’ve got another one that’s a piece that I wrote in homage to John Coltrane with really good backing music, it’s called ‘Song of Praise’. So those are all on my CD Baby site, and I’ve got quite a few more.”

In the last part of Sensi Seeds’ interview with Sinclair, he described his years as an activist. He described how different it was to be an activist before social media. Sinclair said that before Facebook, rallies were advertised by posters in the mail — everything was done on a small scale. But ultimately, that was what made it all feel ‘human’.

“Well, that was the manifestation of the human element. Struggle was the basic condition of life. You were struggling to say what you wanted to say, you were struggling to present it to the people who might be interested in hearing it, you know. To do a performance, it was a struggle to get there and make it happen. A struggle to get paid, to pay your bills…. No, no, that’s still the same today. [laughs] Yeah, it was just a challenge. Life was a challenge. They had this horrible thing called ‘American life’ and it was up to us to oppose it, if I can put it that way. It was up to us, we had to do this. If we hadn’t opposed it, it would have rolled on over everything, like it has. We opposed it but then we lost, and they won. So now it’s the way they wanted it, you know? It’s why it’s so awful.”

Sinclair went into great detail about the difference between today’s commodification of music and the free love that Sinclair and his comrades fought for. The modern-age attitude towards music is everything opposite to what Sinclair’s idea of life was. He wanted everything to be free for everybody.

Sensi Seeds asked Sinclair how he felt about the progression of cannabis laws in the USA. When he was an activist, many were imprisoned for cannabis, but now, many states have legalized medical cannabis. A few have even legalized recreational cannabis use.

“I think it is all good! Any progress is good! Two states have legalised recreational, and are trying to deal with economic and distribution questions. I have a prescription in Michigan, even have one in Holland. But I didn’t think it should be such a difficult process. I thought it would all be over by 1977.”

We asked John Sinclair about his thoughts on the inconsistent state and federal cannabis laws in the USA. Specifically, we wondered if he thought it might end in one giant conflict. This was his answer:

“Well, I think the federal laws will be like the Soviet Union; one day you will wake up and they are just going to be gone. Would you have ever thought the Soviet Union would end? When I grew up, all these years we had the central organising focus of our social order: this thing called the Cold War. This was since I was four years old until I was 50. I went through the entire Cold War. Then in 1991, there were all these internal cataclysms. Whatever happened, the American intelligence industry didn’t even predict this. The CIA was shocked when it stopped.

So how do you know? I would never ever have said that someday the USSR would just fold. So that’s the way I look at it. There is no basis for these drug laws, there is no pharmaceutical basis, it is all a scam. And on a federal level, the federal government is wholly owned by the large corporations, in this case the drug industry and the liquor industry. They don’t want marihuana legalized because that will cut into their profits. 

The thing is, even though there’s prohibition you can still go ahead and smoke your weed every day in the Netherlands. Who gives a fuck except for the poor guys who get busted with the plantation. To you and me, we can smoke weed, it is legal. They should have it legal on an important level so they can make some money out of it, where they can reward important people from the industry openly, instead of making them criminal. Ben Dronkers should be an admiral for this.”

It was a pleasure to interview John Sinclair, a modern-day legacy of the hippie revolution. His charm and his demeanour make him a man to remember, and it was Sensi Seeds’ utmost pleasure to host and share this interview.

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    Sensi Seeds

    The Sensi Seeds Editorial team has been built throughout our more than 30 years of existence. Our writers and editors include botanists, medical and legal experts as well as renown activists the world over including Lester Grinspoon, Micha Knodt, Robert Connell Clarke, Maurice Veldman, Sebastian Maríncolo, James Burton and Seshata.
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